Moving backwards on Capitol Hill

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It’s a question of scale: Us little people are down here on the ground, agonizing over buying one package of paper plates and other incredibly minor decisions, while members of Congress are up there on Capitol Hill, gleefully defunding major sustainability initiatives that have wide cultural significance beyond their immediate practical impact.

I first heard about this story last week on NPR and now see it again on ABC: The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has dismantled a program called "Green the Capitol." It was begun by House Democrats in 2007, so it’s easy to say that it’s "Nancy Pelosi’s program," though it doubtless involved many other people whose names are not partisan buzzwords.

The program included such changes as installing CFL bulbs throughout the House and doing away with styrofoam and plastic in the Capitol cafeteria. The Capitol Power Plant was run on natural gas instead of coal (admittedly, a dubious tradeoff) and the program instituted recycling and composting. All this is said to have saved 23 percent on energy consumption and 32 percent on water.

The new majority, however, is pointing to the cost of the program and complaining about supposedly unpronounceable local foods that were being served in the cafeteria. Goodbye, recycling! Goodbye, compostable plates and utensils! Bring back the styrofoam, they say!

Well, either the program saves money or it doesn’t. I don’t have the numbers, so I don’t know. But even if it costs a bit more, is it not a good investment to experiment with sustainability in high-profile public buildings? This is all too reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s removal of Jimmy Carter’s solar panels from the White House. It’s childish and spiteful. And it’s hard to argue that styrofoam and plastic–even if the alternatives aren’t yet perfect–are wonderful materials.

Perhaps the Republican majority would benefit from a field trip to a local landfill. They should take their kids and grandkids along, too. After all, those are the folks who will truly reap the rewards of their policies.

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