Interview with Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Environment and Economy Subcommittee
Bloomberg BNA: We're seeing a lot of very influential leaders on environmental issues, such as Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.), retire at the end of this Congress. Are you concerned about an intellectual “brain drain” on these issues?
Tonko:Yes, there are concerns because those are very big shoes to fill, but I am optimistic going forward. The dynamics of the environment and the economy are directly linked. It's not like they need to oppose each other.
I most strongly believe that they mutually coexist and that there are strong benefits that come with growing the economy and growing job opportunities—sometimes not yet on the radar screen—that come with all of this. Some of the environmental stuff—energy efficiency as our fuel of choice, better stewardship of our resources—these are things that require innovative concepts that enable us to really grow the economy.
Many great seeds have been planted by these gentlemen, these representatives. Now our goal is to nurture those seeds and continue to think of additional concepts that can be moved along and to develop the policy that will inspire that.
Bloomberg BNA: Would you like to assume a greater leadership role on these issues in the House?
Tonko: My goal when I ran—actually when the seat was being looked at—the lens that spoke most powerfully was the energy lens, because I truly believe we need a comprehensive energy plan for this country.
No economy this large, no nation this much a leader and no society that is so innovative and intellectual can continue without a comprehensive energy plan. I think the drive to insert myself, my background and the strengths of my district into those discussions, have me anxiously looking forward to growing within the context of the committee.
I really focused on that committee when I first arrived. It takes a while because of its exclusive nature to be seated there, but it's been a great opportunity for me to sit on that committee and to be ranking member on the environment and the economy subcommittee.
Naturally, you'd love to grow in that regard because, again, I've seen firsthand a number of dynamics that occur in my district. We just recently had assistant energy secretary David Danielson in, and he labeled my area as one of the top five inspiring renewable hubs in the country.
It's been this overnight thing—we have nanoscience going on, we have renewable centers for [General Electric] there, we have the [research and development] center for GE, we've got incubator space at [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute], we have the largest chip manufacturing plant under construction in the world. So we've got all these dynamics, these underpinnings of strength that abound in that district. The learning curve there for me just by networking with my constituents and my businesses is enormous.
You really want to grow on the committee and you can speak anecdotally, which [comes from] the front line exchange that we have with those businesses telling me about their strengths, their needs, their policy requirements, their resource advocacy. So, you want to translate that into an extrapolation across the map of the country, so we can be this innovation economy that's capitalizing on our intellectual capacity.
Bloomberg BNA: What do you make of the argument that people around the country understand the importance of clean energy and other environmental technologies, and that Congress remains the outlier that doesn't?
Tonko: I think at times some of these dynamics need to speak to us repeatedly and we transition. Being on the E&C [Energy and Commerce] committee for a term now was good footing, but with every Congress comes a clean slate. And a clean slate means to me: take those learned experiences and that awareness for all of us on the committee.
Mother Nature has pushed us to the table simply because she's taught us lessons that the price tag on recovery is far greater than the price tag on prevention. We're all learning that together.
As part of the team at the table, I have great hope and optimism about the gathering we'll have come January 2015. We'll be able to have that clean slate with many new faces on both sides of the aisle, with leadership that will pull us together simply because the demands out there are so great that we're responding to them.
Bloomberg BNA: Republicans have been reluctant to speak out on climate change in public—certainly using that rhetoric. Do you think there's a different attitude in private?
Tonko:We're all learning, and if the rhetoric held us back, let's submit to another sort of discourse. If we don't want to address it as climate change, talk about an innovation economy, talk about the job growth that comes with retrofitting our communities to climate change adaptation, to the forces that will respond to the needs of Mother Nature.
For instance, Superstorm Sandy impacted New York severely. Before that, [hurricanes] Irene and Lee hit the 20th congressional district. From that, you learn, okay, what lasted in terms of infrastructure. If it was distributed energy, we relate that to the committee.
It's all about storytelling, it's all anecdotal evidence. It's about real-life experience that you put into the discussion. If we go past that logjam that might be the rhetoric itself, let's talk in real-life situations and there's a number of dynamics that get drawn to this discussion—be it health care for our children with asthma situations that are improved by an innovation economy or if it's sounder stewardship that is driven by a faith ethic that some of us are guided by—whatever it is, there's a way to reach people. There are things that unite us, and we need to focus on those threads of commonality that unite us.
I've prided myself on doing bipartisan work on the committee. There are ways to speak the common language based on those factors that unite us and to dwell on those threads of commonality.
Bloomberg BNA: Are there particular items you think the next Congress should start with to build on those common threads?
Tonko:There is no stronger dynamic for any of us in representation mode or in campaign mode than job creation. There are tremendous opportunities of job growth associated with energy and environmental issues, and it's not like they can't coexist. In fact, they're mutually compatible in many cases.
Bloomberg BNA: Has that case been made forcefully enough in your opinion?
Tonko: It's a growing phenomenon, I think. Like anything, if you get the taste of success, you want more and more to do that. Environment is beginning to score again heavily. Many people see the impacts of Mother Nature as something that needs to be responded to. In the immediate zone, it was recovery money and rehabilitation money that came with damage control from the effects of flooding or wildfires or drought.
As the country deals with all of this, whatever the dynamic is in our region, I think we walk away knowing prevention becomes part of our responsiveness.
If we can just see it as job growth, I think we'll do well. The benefits of a clean slate and Mother Nature pushing us to the table to have that dialogue and discussion are helpful measures.
Bloomberg BNA: Is energy efficiency a good place to start?
Tonko: Yes. I've talked about a comprehensive energy plan, but if we can't get that magnanimous about a solution—if we can't take that bold or that one step—then incrementally let's deal with some of the issues, some of the low-hanging fruit. The energy efficiency measures that enable people to have lower bills—they don't pay rates, they pay bills—so if they can use less, they're going to taste that success of a reduced bill.
That's good for all of us. When we taste that success that has been shared by the consumer, I think it's just inspirational and motivational.
Bloomberg BNA:What do you think of the approach President Barack Obama's administration has taken to address climate change? Would you prefer to see congressional action over regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency?
Tonko: I would love to see it imposed in statute, but again the urgency that many, including the president, feel on this issue has them reaching to the next available option. I think everyone would prefer to see the statutorily imposed outcome, which is helpful, and I, for one, prefer that.
Again, the efforts we can make on behalf of our children and their health, the better the world that we can pass onto the next generation—which may be an assigned sense of stewardship driven by some tenets that guide us—those are important. There's a stretching in this business that just comes naturally. The basic part of this job is to be a good listener. More and more of us, by region or whatever, have had this real life experience that says, ‘Hey, something's happening and we need to prevent it.'
If you don't buy into the concept, that's fine, I think there are other ways into the discussion, and much of that could be through innovation and job growth that comes through that new approach.
Bloomberg BNA: What about a carbon tax? Do you like that as a policy tool?
Tonko: There are ways for us to get into this [clean energy] mix and perhaps avoid a revenue demand for a solution. I would hope that we would see it as job growth and see it as investment-worthy because it has such a very lucrative return.
Again, the awareness that's struck within us about the cost of inaction or the preventative elements that are much cheaper will be helpful and useful in our consciousness and in our thinking.
Bloomberg BNA: What impacts from climate change are you seeing in your district?
Tonko: Irene and Lee caused a lot of damage—erosion of valuable farmland, the destruction of housing, the shutting of small businesses, the deaths, the realignment of landscape—these are factors that don't get washed away.
They stay with you. I see the struggle still continuing for farmers and businesses and residents and the like. Recovery is a long, long drawn process. The assistance we attempt to provide doesn't nearly cover the price tag of recovery.
Bloomberg BNA: With Rep. Waxman leaving, there's a race to replace him as the top Democrat on the committee between Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). Do you know whom you'll support yet, and do you think Democrats will unite?
Tonko:I think that will happen. We have two fine candidates that have been most prominently mentioned. They have great experience on the committee. My hope is, as the dust settles, we'll have a collaboration at the table that finds good bridging of the political parties and an emphasis on the strands of commonality that can be woven into our discussion that finds us prioritizing some very important work, accompanied by a strong sense of optimism that will help us get our work done.
It's an important committee. It takes on some huge issues. I've enjoyed the intermingling on the committee and the ability to reach across the aisle. You have to make the time to reach through the dialogue.
I'm still a firm believer that it all begins and ends with sound discussion. Storytelling is magnificent, because what we do here needs to have the faces on the discussion and the real-life tales. Otherwise, it's just an accounting exercise, and it needs to be humanized. That's when we're most successful.
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