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Pingree aims for urgency at Interior-Environment appropriations

She knows from experience that opportunities to legislate with Democrats in charge of the White House and both chambers of Congress can be fleeting

House Appropriations Interior-Environment Subcommittee Chairwoman Chellie Pingree said the tools for addressing plastic waste are available now.
House Appropriations Interior-Environment Subcommittee Chairwoman Chellie Pingree said the tools for addressing plastic waste are available now. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, says she understands the importance of seizing opportunities to advance environmental policies.

She joined other House Democrats her first term in passing a major cap-and-trade bill in 2009, only to see that legislation languish in the Senate.

Democrats lost the House in the ensuing midterm elections and only now, more than a decade later, do they once again control both chambers and the White House.

“I think that’s imprinted on Democrats’ minds,” Pingree said in an interview. “You could only have two years to do some things that you think are critically important.”

Pingree will be a key player on those issues as she takes the gavel of the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee.

Asked about her priorities for this Congress, she cited the challenges that arts venues have faced during the pandemic. She also said she looks forward to working with Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., once the congresswoman is confirmed as Interior secretary, and spoke of the need to address Native American health and education issues.

But one issue dominating conversations on Capitol Hill this session will be climate change and related environmental action.

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While many advocates would love to see a sweeping climate package reach President Joe Biden’s desk, the chances of that happening look a lot like Democrats’ House and Senate majorities — slim.

That means much of the focus will be on the appropriations process and administrative actions.

Pingree will be in a position to influence both as she runs the subcommittee responsible for crafting the budgets of the EPA, the Interior Department and various related agencies.

Bill Lee, senior vice president for government relations at The Trust for Public Land, said Pingree’s experience and dedication to conservation will help her repair damage from the past four years.

That includes restoring funding for urban parks that was de-programmed at the last minute by the previous administration, Lee said.

“There are so many neighborhoods in America that don’t have access to nature, that don’t have a quality park,” Lee said.

Fixing things

Pingree likewise hit the theme of fixing what the Trump administration broke, saying important government agencies saw many talented staff members depart in recent years.

“We were sort of on a good track when Obama left office and now we just have to scramble to put it all back together,” Pingree said.

She agreed the appropriations process is where a lot of that policymaking is likely to occur. That’s likely to include more funding for research and infrastructure.

Breaking proposals down into smaller pieces could help produce more bipartisan cooperation, Pingree said.

She also holds seats on the House Agriculture Committee and the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

Pingree has advocated enlisting farmers as partners in fighting climate change rather than treating them as targets of regulation.

For example, she’s sponsored legislation aimed at getting U.S. agriculture to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 through research, better farming techniques and reduced food waste.

She also plans to highlight forest issues given their importance to her home state and their potential for sequestering carbon.

“When you’ve got an administration that’s focused on climate change, we’re going to really have to focus on the health of our forest,” Pingree said.

That includes looking at what to do in the aftermath of wildfires that have devastated vast swaths of the West.

“We want to have less forest fires and deal with the forest management issues that lead up to that, and the climate change issues,” Pingree said. “But I also think there are some interesting innovative ideas around how you recover huge tracts of burned wood and perhaps some of this forestry innovation funding can look at that.”

Pingree will have an advantage over her predecessor, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who had been dealing with an administration pushing to slash budgets at agencies such as the EPA, said Matthew Davis, legislative policy director at the League of Conservation Voters.

In contrast, Pingree will be working hand-in-hand with the Biden administration.

“Rep. Pingree will do a great job of that collaborative work and thinking through what she can do with a budget to help reinforce the administration’s priorities to cut emissions like we need, invest in environmental justice communities and make our public lands part of the solution to climate change,” Davis said.  

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