People Power

The TakeAway: The outcome of Tuesday’s elections will influence public policy on sustainability and financial reform, but individuals can still make a difference.

Tomorrow’s elections are expected to yield gains for the Republicans in Congress, which could affect not only the balance of power but also important committee assignments affecting financial reform, consumer protection, and the SEC.  At the state level, two ballot questions in California serve as a preview of national climate change legislation and create a policy environment of extreme uncertainty:  the high-profile Proposition 23, on the repeal of its global warming law, and the lesser-known Proposition 26, which would blunt enforcement of state law, including penalties for violations affecting global warming.

Current forecasts show the Republicans gaining 53 seats, according to pollster Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.  No dramatic last-minute changes are expected, he says, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what will happen on Tuesday night.  “Just as the conditions promising at least a pretty bad Democratic year (the tepid economy, coupled with the perception that Democratic efforts to fix it have been an expensive failure) have been with us for some time, the uncertainty has been with us all along as well, like a virus with an exceptionally long latency period.”

RiskMetric’s Ted Allen writes that Republicans are unlikely to rollback Dodd-Frank, which would create even more uncertainty; more likely are efforts to defund portions of it, making implementation moot.  According to, GOP lawmakers will “significantly ramp up oversight of agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission in the wake of Democratic financial services overhaul, which they believe gives the regulators too broad authority over markets”.  Many predict gridlock in both the House and Senate, with a “steady stream of hearings attacking Dodd-Frank, partly to satisfy lobbyists and campaign donors,” CNBC reports.

While the Senate isn’t expected to change hands, the House is—which affects the leadership of the House Financial Services Committee.  Current chairman Barney Frank – who’s in a stiff reelection race – is expected to hand over the gavel to the current ranking Democrat on the committee, Alabama Rep. Spencer Bachus. Frank told Politico that he was worried about Republicans cutting funding for such agencies as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is being organized by new White House appointee Elizabeth Warren, a staunch critic of Wall Street.

Today, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) reports that Republicans “aim to squeeze” the new agency’s funding.  CPI cites other changes in store with a Republican majority:

  • Ending provisions for “too big to fail” that would let failing institutions dissolve, rather than propping them up with bailout money;
  • Continued tinkering with Dodd-Frank provisions;
  • Limiting the reach of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

So what do midterm elections mean for sustainability progress?  It means that individuals and institutions will have to stand up against entrenched business interests, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich argued on Friday concerning the Tea Party.  It means many of those tens of thousands who turned out for Saturday’s Rally to Restore Sanity will need to turn out again, not in Washington but through local venues and other outlets—including proxy voting.  Fortunately, the current hypermedia environment, combined with pressures for greater transparency and accountability – particularly from shareholders – make participation in sustainability governance matters more accessible.

You don’t need Congress or state governments to make a difference.   You need to organize.  As Amy Nothoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) told Time Magazine: “The coalition we’ve put together to fight Prop 23 is the new face of the environmental movement.   This is enough to actually make a difference in the political process.”

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