The Curious Case of Fred Upton

Fred Upton is the Republican congressman who used to have interesting ideas about fighting climate change. But then he ran for chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
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We all know a Fred Upton.

He's the coworker who was your friend until he got promoted and "went corporate." He's the athlete who played to bring a championship to his home town before following a larger contract to a bigger city. He's the buddy who was always around until he got into a relationship and didn't have time for you any more.

Fred Upton is the Republican congressman who used to have interesting ideas about reducing emissions and fighting climate change. But then he ran for chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Now, he has staffed his committee with lobbyists and today he is introducing a bill that seeks to roll back Clean Air Act protections against pollution from factories and power plants.

Upton started his career as a relatively reasonable guy when it came to environmental issues. After being elected to the House in 1986, he backed the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, popular, bipartisan legislation that significantly cut the sulfur dioxide emissions that cause acid rain. In 2007, he and 94 other House Republicans supported the Energy Independence and Security Act, a law that set new fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks and increased energy efficiency requirements for light bulbs (though the bill also had some pretty egregious giveaways to corporate polluters). And just two years ago, in 2009, he praised a wind energy project and said, "Climate change is a serious problem that necessitates serious solutions."

However, last year, as it became more likely that the Republicans would take back control of the House, Upton started vying for a gavel. He and Joe Barton were the frontrunners to chair the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, and many in the GOP thought that Upton was too moderate. So he started backtracking. By mid-2010, Upton declared "war on the regulatory state" and denied the need to reduce pollution. Once the Republican takeover was assured, he flat-out denied the threat of global warming in a Wall Street Journal op-ed co-authored with Tim Phillips, president of the Koch Industries-backed Americans for Prosperity.

Considering that it's practically a Republican Party plank these days, it should not be surprising that Upton is denying climate change. But his turnaround on the issue was so complete and extreme that even Fox News questioned him. Why would a respectable congressman completely contradict his earlier positions and ignore the concerns of his constituents, the people affected by the Kalamazoo River Oil Spill last year? One explanation might be that in January, after taking the gavel, Upton handed his committee over to lobbyists. It is terrifying to see such blatant corporate influence over such an important part of our government.

By listening to the dirty oil and coal industries instead of his constituents, Chairman Upton has lost touch with his district. I grew up in Bainbridge Township, outside of Benton Harbor, right across the river from the congressman's home town of St. Joseph. Before I moved to Washington, D.C., Upton was my representative, and, like everyone in the district, I called him Fred.

The people of Southwest Michigan are proud Midwesterners. We know our core values, and whether we vote for Republicans or Democrats, those core values guide us. For the first twenty years Fred served in the House, he was the same way. He stuck by his principles, working hard to prevent dangerous and ecologically destructive drilling in Lake Michigan and supporting the innovations made by Whirlpool, a company Upton's grandfather helped start that is still based in his district, by increasing energy efficiency requirements. The first time I voted in a congressional election, I voted for Fred, and for 20 years, I respected him.

But in the last two years, Upton has abandoned his principles. He now supports a pipeline that will double imports of the same filthy tar sands oil that contaminated the Kalamazoo River, which empties into Upton's beloved Lake Michigan, just last year. And the bill he is introducing today to block modest limits on carbon dioxide pollution is a clear giveaway to corporate lobbyists that will cause serious health problems for thousands of people around the country. Upton has lost the independent compass that guided him through earlier terms and earned him respect, even from those who did not support him. By abandoning the common-sense governing that got him to where he is, he has turned his back on that respect. By relying on lobbyists to run his committee, he has lost touch with the community.

I know many people who live in Michigan's Sixth District. They care about the air and water. They want to have the ear of their representative in Washington. And they are too smart to let Fred abandon them. If Congressman Upton continues his rightward shift, he will lose the support of the independents who have supported him for the last twenty five years. Progress Michigan has already launched an online petition urging Upton to "start working for Michigan, not special interests!" If he continues to attack policies that protect the people of Michigan, he could ensure that this term is his last.

Fred Upton was the conscientious congressman from my hometown, but now he's selling out his district to buy more influence. It's a shame.

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