WASHINGTON — Florida Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-1st) and Brian Mast (R-18th) on Wednesday joined GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill in announcing the formation of a new conservation group.
The kickoff of the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus comes after President Donald Trump gave a speech this week touting his administration’s environmental record and as Republican lawmakers appear increasingly eager to herald their green credentials.
But environmentalists are accusing the Florida Republicans and others in the group of attempting to greenwash their records.
President Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican conservationist for whom the caucus is named is “absolutely rolling over in his grave,” said Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Gaetz has a lifetime score of 7% from the League of Conservation Voters, an advocacy group that tracks lawmakers’ pro-environment votes. Mast has a lifetime score of 26% from the group, which is relatively high among House Republicans.
The Florida lawmakers joined other Republicans from the Senate and House on Wednesday to formally announce the launch of the group, which its leaders said will “embrace and promote constructive efforts to resolve conservation and environmental problems that align with market-based approaches and promote American ingenuity.”
The Republicans in the caucus stressed that they intend to approach the environment differently than Democratic colleagues, some of whom are pushing for the Green New Deal that’s drawn the wrath of conservatives.
Gaetz told reporters on Wednesday that he supports the group’s organizing principle, that “As conservatives, every once in a while there ought to be a time when we want to conserve something.”
He added, “While our differences in this town do matter, nothing matters more than the fact that we all share the same planet.”
Gaetz, a Trump ally, welcomed the president’s environmental speech earlier this week and said he expects to see Trump talking more and more about his administration’s environmental policies.
Gaetz often calls for sweeping climate change policies — he introduced a counter proposal to the Green New Deal earlier this year. But Democrats and environmentalists have dismissed that legislation as a weak effort that won’t lead to significant emission reductions.
And Gaetz previously introduced legislation to abolish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Mast said that he and other Republicans across the country “represent beautiful, lush, green park-filled districts that we care about.” He called on Congress to “move past the partisan rhetoric and face our environmental challenges head on by working together to strengthen conservation programs, promote public health, defend our environment, keep our air clean and protect our waterways.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Wednesday that Republicans “need to showcase that we care about conservation, we care about the environment and we have innovative solutions that are not top-down regulatory solutions.”
Graham added, “We believe that you cannot have a healthy environment and destroy the economy. And we believe that our friends on the other side care about the environment, but they care so much they’re going to destroy the economy in the name of saving the environment. That is a false choice.”
Snape, of the Center for Biological Diversity, said of the new caucus and of Trump, “Do they really think … that they can just say they’re green and people will believe them? … I think it’s a desperate political green masquerade.”
He suggested that Trump and the GOP lawmakers are making their environmental push in light of new polling data indicating that the environment presents a liability for the party heading into 2020.
“They’ve read the poll numbers” and have decided to engage in a “marketing ploy,” Snape said. But “votes matter,” he added.
John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said there’s “at least reason for concern that the caucus is purposefully avoiding controversial issues in the name of focusing on less controversial issues in a way that would let them say there’s a conservative environmental agenda.”
He said the caucus should ultimately be judged by how much and how fast it will act to cut dangerous air pollution. “We’ll have to see what the answer is to that question.”