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Congress tries to walk the climate crisis talk

Amid debate on Green New Deal, Democrats are treading lightly in their daily lives

Staffers are aiming to lead by example, by creating workplace cultures where being “green” is a priority. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Staffers are aiming to lead by example, by creating workplace cultures where being “green” is a priority. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Staffers working for environmentally minded lawmakers are trying to walk the talk on climate change by taking small personal actions while their bosses call for big-picture policy shifts.

Around Capitol Hill, several aides are aiming to create workplace cultures where being “green” is a priority and holding colleagues accountable is the norm.

The issue of sustainability has taken on new urgency on Capitol Hill because of a push by advocacy groups, led by the Sunrise Movement and freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to make climate change a Democratic priority. They are calling for a Green New Deal — a sprawling plan to decarbonize the economy by making large-scale investments in the public sector. The progressive activists spent the first weeks of the 116th Congress pressing for a select committee.

In response, Speaker Nancy Pelosi formed the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, an echo of a similar panel Democrats had when they were last in the majority. But its scope — lacking legislative and subpoena power — is more limited than advocates had in mind. And some have questioned the commitment of the appointed members, given that many accepted campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry in the 2018 cycle.

With all eyes on them, it’s no wonder that Democratic members and staffers are doing what they can in their daily lives. The research is clear that a small number of major industries and corporations are responsible for most environmental impacts, but policymakers aren’t giving up on the idea that every reusable straw and bike commute counts.

Take Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, the chairwoman of the new select panel. Castor’s offices in both Washington and her district feature live plants that naturally clean the air, and staffers compost used coffee grounds.

Recyclable materials from her Tampa office are processed by the Louise Graham Regeneration Center, a recycling service that provides employment for developmentally disabled adults, according to a Castor aide.

Castor and Rep. Ben Ray Luján’s offices both said district staffers are getting involved in environmental efforts. They carpool to events in their Florida and New Mexico districts, and Luján’s office relies on conference calling to cut down on driving. But that hasn’t insulated such members from criticism. Castor has faced it from green groups for having up to $100,000 invested in natural gas, oil and coal while she leads the climate crisis panel.

Top-down, bottom-up

The House has its own recycling program, run by the superintendent of House office buildings. Offices that opt in to the program recycle paper, bottles, cans, e-waste and more.

In the office of Rep. A. Donald McEachin, another member of the panel, staffers are diligent about recycling, but also spreading the word. Jamitress Bowden, communications director for the Virginia Democrat, said they help people get with the (recycling) program if they toss their items in the wrong place.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, no, that actually goes in the other bin,’” she said.

That kind of gentle social pressure in the workplace may be on a small scale in one House office, but with 30,000 workers across Congress and Legislative Branch agencies, those small actions can add up quickly.

“We’re conscious of the micro-impact,” Bowden said. “We are conscious in the office as we talk about the change that we need to see on a larger scale.” Walking into McEachin’s office, visitors will instantly get the hint about environmental priorities.

“The congressman chose green carpet and green curtains in our office for a reason. The environment is always on our mind here in Cannon 314,” Bowden said.

With the effort coming from both members and staffers, Bowden called the push for sustainability both “top-down and bottom-up.”

Watch: Democrats downplay appearance of disunity on Green New Deal

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Do drink the water?

Staffers are skipping paper coffee cups from Starbucks or the Longworth and Rayburn cafeterias, opting instead for reusable mugs that can show off pride for their alma maters or charities of choice and sometimes score them a discount.

California Rep. Jared Huffman, who also sits on the select committee, is a known advocate for reusable water bottles.

“Rep. Huffman is a big fan of reusable water bottles so that people can use cheaper and lower carbon-footprint tap water,” Alexa Shaffer, Huffman’s communications director, said in a statement.

As the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans, Huffman has previously provided his colleagues on that panel with bottles. He assumed the chairmanship of the subcommittee in the new Congress, and Shaffer said he plans to hand out more to encourage his colleagues to cut back on plastic.

The Senate has its own water bottle evangelist, Richard Blumenthal. The Connecticut Democrat provides reusable ones to all his staffers, both in Washington and Connecticut. And he drives a hybrid car in both locations.

Hydrating sustainably in the House office buildings has been challenging in recent years. After dangerous lead levels were found in Cannon and Rayburn in 2016, bottled water became ubiquitous. For longtime staffers who underwent blood testing and anxieties related to the lead discovery, trusting what comes out of the faucet may take more than a fun water bottle or positive peer pressure.

Hold the omnibus

Some Huffman staffers go above and beyond mugs and water bottles, bringing reusable dishes and utensils with them to work to cut down on plastic as they eat lunch.

Sodexo, the food vendor for all eateries on the House side of the Capitol, is making changes to their offerings with the goal of being greener. The House Chief Administrative Office worked with Sodexo to transition to biodegradable soup containers and lids, recyclable napkins, and wooden stir sticks for coffee instead of plastic ones.

Sodexo also provides compostable hot food “to go” containers and sells $2.00 reusable coffee cups that give customers a discount if they use them.

“The CAO and our vendors are always looking for more opportunities to reduce, reuse, and recycle,” CAO spokesperson Dan Weiser said.

Those efforts come with a history. For a brief time during Pelosi’s first term as speaker, House cafeterias had compostable, corn-based products — part of her “Green the Capitol Initiative,” which she launched in 2007. But Republicans ended that initiative in 2011, citing concerns about cost and effectiveness, and plastic foam containers made a comeback.

In addition to recycling, House offices are buying recycled goods. Staff in multiple offices told Roll Call that they buy recycled or sustainably sourced paper, usually in bulk to cut down on packaging waste. Plenty of legislation reaches hundreds or thousands of pages, but many offices won’t be printing out an omnibus. Cutting down on unnecessary printing and maintaining digital records is another practice offices have adopted to cut down on waste.

Bike racks in the parking garages and around the Capitol complex, along with an expanding network of bike lanes in Washington, makes biking to work more feasible for staffers than it has been in the past.

One regular bike commuter in McEachin’s office had his bike stolen. His co-workers chipped in to help him buy a replacement, according to Bowden. Colleagues coughing up some hard earned cash to help replace your bike? That’s a green culture.

Emily Kopp contributed to this report.

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