Center for American Progress

Oceans ’13: The Post-Election Future of Ocean Policy

Oceans ’13: The Post-Election Future of Ocean Policy

Michael Conathan breaks down the effect of the recent national elections on our oceans and coasts.

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U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) speaks at a news conference in South Portland, Maine. Sen. Snowe, who has a long history of supporting science-based management of our oceans and coasts, will retire when her term ends in January. (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) speaks at a news conference in South Portland, Maine. Sen. Snowe, who has a long history of supporting science-based management of our oceans and coasts, will retire when her term ends in January. (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)

On November 7 the American people woke up to a post-election Washington, D.C., that looks an awful lot like pre-election Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama earned a four-year extension on his lease at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and his Democratic colleagues retained their hold on the Senate, and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and his Republican colleagues still control the agenda in the House of Representatives.

Despite historically bad approval ratings for Congress, which actually dipped down into the single digits as recently as last month, 21 of the 22 senators seeking re-election held onto their offices in general elections—10 others retired, and one incumbent lost in a primary election. And with four House seats still awaiting decisions as of this writing, only 25 of the 382 incumbent representatives in general elections lost their races—40 others retired, and 13 were beaten in primary elections—and five of them were running against other incumbents as a result of redistricting changes.

Yet even with the outward appearance of status quo, a deeper look inside the results of last week’s elections shows that when a few key seats change hands, the effects on our oceans and coasts may be striking. There are some new obstacles to overcome, as well as some great opportunities to cultivate new leaders who will prioritize these issues in the 113th Congress.

The president of the United States

On November 6 all eyes gravitated to the Obama/Romney ticket-topping tilt-a-whirl. Coming as a surprise to no one, oceans—besides former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s mockery of their rise at the Republican national convention in Tampa and a brief rebuttal from President Obama in Charlotte—were absent from the campaign trail. Aside from this one brief thrust-and-parry neither candidate bothered to talk much about climate change at all.

Now, however, following President Obama’s surge to victory in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, climate change is gaining prominence in the national political dialogue. A new Rasmussen poll released the week of the election showed that 68 percent of Americans now view climate change as a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem, up from just 46 percent in 2009, continuing a trend that has been emerging in other recent polling showing greater awareness and belief that climate change is a contributing factor to the recent uptick in extreme weather events.

While the two presidential candidates spoke little about climate change during the race, their positions differed greatly. The White House website’s climate change page touts the president’s efforts to combat the problem through efforts including international negotiations, reduction of emissions through a commitment to clean energy, and Environmental Protection Agency regulatory overhauls. By contrast, Gov. Romney’s efforts to downplay the seriousness of the problem came back to bite him in the closing days of the campaign as voters watched dire predictions about the vulnerability of infrastructure in New York City and New Jersey come true with tragic results.

In addition to climate change, President Obama’s re-election means that there is life for his National Ocean Policy—an effort launched by executive order and designed to bring a semblance of cohesiveness to the multitude of federal agencies that have a role in the management of issues that affect our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes. Despite the policy’s intention to streamline and reduce redundancy in government activity and enhance states’ rights by providing support for individual states and regions that opt to manage their coasts according to the policy’s core set of principles, many Republicans, particularly on the House Natural Resources Committee, lambast the policy as another example of “job killing regulations” handed down by the White House. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It was widely anticipated that under a Romney administration, the policy and the National Ocean Council established to support it would have been shelved. With President Obama still in the White House, the policy’s supporters have at least another four years to prove the value of its underlying principles, primarily comprehensive ocean planning.

The Senate

The Democrats’ overall majority in the Senate now stands at 55 seats, including two independent senators from Maine and Vermont who will caucus with the Democrats. This is an increase of two from the current Democratic majority of 53 seats. In the early days of the 2012 campaign, pundits predicted that the Senate would flip into Republican hands after November. But those prospects dwindled over the past year as Republican retirement announcements and some of the Republican Senate candidates’ mind-numbingly insensitive comments on rape and abortion took their toll.

Now the Democrats’ continued role as the majority party ensures they will keep the Senate’s committee chairs, thereby controlling the content and panels of witnesses at hearings and playing a lead role in dictating which bills move through the sausage-making machine. Most ocean issues in the Senate fall under the jurisdiction of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which includes the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard. Here the chair will remain occupied by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) rather than having its gavel turned over to the presumed Republican Ranking Member Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), one of eight men deadlocked atop the National Journal’s list of “Most Conservative Senators,” and someone my colleagues at Climate Progress have called “one of the most outspoken climate deniers in Congress.”

In addition to the Democrats’ retention of the overall majority, the results of three important Senate contests this past November 6 could well shape oceans policy in that chamber over the next six years. Let’s look at each in turn.

Earlier this year I lamented the decision by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) not to seek a fourth Senate term. Because of her long history of supporting science-based management of our oceans and coasts, losing Sen. Snowe would be a blow regardless of her party affiliation. But it’s even more troubling since she was one of the few Republicans who prioritized these issues. After last week’s election, the list of congressional ocean leaders supported by the political organization Ocean Champions includes just one Republican member: Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ). This is not for lack of trying. The same unwillingness to buck party lines that pervades Congress today and motivated Snowe to step aside has made finding Republicans willing to promote ocean issues an increasingly tall order.

Replacing Sen. Snowe will be former Maine Gov. Angus King (I). On Tuesday Sen.-elect King formally announced he would caucus with the Democrats. Since leaving Augusta in 2003, the former governor has worked primarily in the field of renewable energy, and with the importance of ocean issues to the state of Maine he will no doubt focus some of his legislative energy in this area. If he seeks a seat on the Commerce Committee, expect him to pick up some of Sen. Snowe’s priorities as his own, but it will take time for him to develop his predecessor’s clout and reputation for coalition building and productive compromise.

One of the closest races of the 2012 Senate campaign will also deliver swift and grand ramifications for ocean issues. While fishery management issues don’t typically rise to the fore in national politics, in Massachusetts, home to the historic ports of Gloucester and New Bedford as well as numerous smaller fishing communities, fishing means votes. During his tenure, Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) took a hard line on fisheries issues, continually supporting the fishing industry and lambasting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for failing to do enough to support fishermen.

On the campaign trail, former Obama administration official and now Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren followed in the footsteps of one of her closest advisors, retiring Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), agreeing with Sen. Brown’s opposition to catch share management in New England fisheries on the basis that it has had negative effects on small businesses and unfairly favors larger operations. Under the catch share system, the total amount of fish that can be caught is divided up among fishermen who can then either opt to lease or catch their quota. If Sen.-elect Warren maintains this stance on catch shares when she arrives on Capitol Hill in January, it won’t endear her to the Obama administration’s ocean leadership, which has promoted catch shares as a key means of ending overfishing and rebuilding economically and environmentally sustainable fisheries.

Where Sen.-elect Warren will clearly differentiate herself from Sen. Brown and ally herself with the White House will be on the issue of climate change. While Sen. Brown believes humans “play a role” in the forces that are changing our climate, his victorious opponent finds the data supporting human activity as a root cause to be “overwhelming.” And while Sen. Brown opposed regulation of greenhouse gasses by the Environmental Protection Agency, Sen.-elect Warren would support such action. She is also a supporter of Cape Wind, the nation’s first offshore wind farm which has received permits to begin construction on Nantucket Sound, a project Sen. Brown vocally opposed.

Then there’s the victory scored by Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) over Republican rival and Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock to replace Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), who was defeated in the Republican Senate primary contest. Lake Michigan clips the northwest corner of Indiana, making it a Great Lakes state, but the reason this office is included in this list has nothing to do with Asian carp, zebra mussels, or the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Rather, it’s about one critical issue that extends far beyond the borders of the home state of Sen. Lugar and Sen.-elect Donnelly: the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The treaty codifies customary international law and establishes rules and methodologies detailing the rights and responsibilities of nations when it comes to use and protection of the world’s oceans. One hundred and sixty-two other countries have ratified it, but the United States remains the only industrialized nation that has not signed the convention.

Sen. Lugar is the ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in that capacity has been the leading Republican voice supporting Senate ratification of the treaty. In fact, he is the only Republican member of the Committee who is not one of 34 signatories to a letter pledging to vote against the treaty should it come up for a vote in the full Senate. Sen.-elect Donnelly will likely support the treaty, but without Sen. Lugar’s leadership in the Foreign Relations Committee it will be virtually impossible for the Democrats to bring the treaty up for a vote before the full Senate. The loss of Sens. Snowe, Lugar, and Brown means the road to the 67 votes needed to ratify a treaty will get more difficult in 2013.

The House of Representatives

This year, Ocean Champions, an organization that calls itself “the only political voice for the oceans” and which is dedicated to getting politicians elected who will prioritize ocean issues, prioritized defeating the representative they dubbed “Ocean Enemy #1,” Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL). That didn’t happen, yet other members of the Tea Party Caucus failed to win re-election, including:

  • Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL)
  • Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD)
  • Rep. Allen West (R-FL), who still refuses to concede a race that, while close, the state has called for his Democratic challenger, Patrick Murphy
  • Rep. Jeff Landry (R-LA), who faces a runoff election with non-Tea Party Republican Rep. Charles Boustany after redistricting forced them to compete for a single seat

The Tea Party hasn’t made ocean issues a priority in its platform, but its members tend to deny climate change and oppose government regulation and spending. Some members of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus who also serve on the House Committee on Natural Resources including Rep. Southerland, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), and Rep. Landry. They have used their seats on that committee, which oversees most ocean issues, to target President Obama’s National Ocean Policy as a prime example of government gone wrong.

The chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), has led the charge against the National Ocean Policy in his committee, holding multiple hearings designed to discredit it. He also supported an amendment to strip all funding for its implementation. There were rumors that Rep. Hastings might be looking to swap his current gavel for the leadership slot on the more powerful House Rules Committee, but earlier this week news broke that this change would not come to pass.

Had Rep. Hastings switched chairs, his most likely successor would have been Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT). Rep. Bishop is also a member of the Tea Party Caucus—Rep. Hastings is not—but while his district does include the Great Salt Lake, he has not been as outspoken as Rep. Hastings on issues relating to other bodies of salt water, including the National Ocean Policy. In any case, it would appear that a change in leadership on the Natural Resources Committee could hardly make things worse for the National Ocean Policy, but it seems the best ocean advocates could have hoped for is that the issue fades to the background a bit more under new management.

One issue that won’t fade is the future of fishery management. Perhaps the biggest news in turnover among elected officials in the fisheries world occurred months ago, when Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) announced his retirement after more than three decades of service. Never one to shrink from a fight, Rep. Frank never hesitated to buck party lines when he felt it necessary in order to take care of his constituents, and this included taking his beefs about fisheries management to higher levels of government.

Matt Tinning, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, detailed the sea change that the loss of Rep. Frank will bring to the docks in New England:

Frank was a passionate advocate for fishermen in Massachusetts, most especially those from the Port of New Bedford, in his district. He routinely raised fisheries issues at the highest levels of the administration. Indeed, rumor has it that he made specific fisheries asks of then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in the midst of complex negotiations regarding Wall Street reform — over which he had enormous leverage as Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

While Rep. Frank’s seat was won by Rep.-elect Joe Kennedy (D-MA), the coastal portion of his district, including New Bedford, was reapportioned to Rep. Bill Keating (D-MA), recently elected to his second term. Rep. Keating will be charged with picking up where Rep. Frank left off, but he faces the slightly more difficult task of balancing the differing needs of the New Bedford waterfront—the highest-value fishing port in the nation—with those of his current constituents in the smaller, struggling ports of Chatham, Plymouth, Scituate, and Martha’s Vineyard.

Congress will be facing fisheries issues on a national scale in the years to come. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, the law regulating fishery management, will be up for reauthorization in 2013. Rep. Southerland fired off an early salvo in the looming war over the role of science and the law’s current requirement to end overfishing by holding a Natural Resources Committee field hearing in his Florida district back in August. He came out swinging against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s efforts to regulate fisheries, only to have the majority of his constituents in attendance loudly proclaim their support for the regulations. How this debate plays out in the years to come remains to be seen.


In 2008 President Obama rode the wave of “change” into the White House. On the surface, 2012 looks like the opposite. But as usual, reading beyond the headlines—Democrats retain White House and Senate, Republicans keep House of Representatives—can lead to different conclusions. Significant alterations could be afoot for our oceans as climate change starts to regain some of its footing in the national policy dialogue, the National Ocean Policy gets a new lease on life, and fishery management… well, time will tell on that score.

As we look to 2013, many ocean advocates hope that the more things stay the same, the more they may actually change.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy

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