By Hannah Northey, Environment & Energy reporter
Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) may be a newcomer to the conservative and controversial Freedom Caucus — but she’s right at home among her fellow caucus members hoping to focus their newfound political muscle on energy issues.
Lummis is one of about three dozen House members with some hand in the energy world who now belong to the invitation-only caucus, which in recent weeks has plunged the lower chamber into chaos and attempted to reshape the top layers of leadership in the name of reform.
During an interview on Capitol Hill last month, Lummis, who hails from Wyoming — the country’s top coal producer — said that while energy isn’t a focus for the caucus now, she’s hopeful the group will turn its powerful gaze to those issues in the West.
Given that the caucus is heavily made up of members of the Natural Resources Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee — the two panels that Lummis belongs to — she’s in good company.
“There are a number of things that I think are consequential that I hope we’ll address in the next 12 months, and I hope the Freedom Caucus will take an interest,” said Lummis, who is chairwoman of the Interior Subcommittee on the oversight panel.
She pointed to federal mineral royalties, abandoned mine money, and overseas sales of coal as items she would like to see on the caucus’s agenda.
“Certainly, I have concerns about the abandoned mine monies, federal mineral royalties and sales of what some people consider to be non-arm’s-length transactions overseas of now coal, but if we sell oil and gas overseas, we’re going to have the same kinds of issues about how do you value them for purposes of applying the federal mineral royalty rate,” she said. “It’s a complex issue that can be simpler than the federal government’s making it right now, but it’s something that requires some education of members because not everybody’s thinking about how do you value minerals if you’re selling them overseas.”
Lummis has been a leader in opposing an Interior Department proposal to reform coal valuation and, potentially as a result, mining company royalty payments.
She’s also been involved in abandoned coal mine reclamation funding but has been at odds with conservatives and liberals who want to end payments to states — like Wyoming — that have finished cleaning up their priority sites.
Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), the caucus’s sole member serving on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he also wants the group to take up energy issues in the coming months — but he’s got his eye on curbing the U.S. EPA’s authority in issuing new air pollution and its landmark climate rule. Those are two agenda items that should appeal to his fellow caucus members, whose constituents are largely hostile to federal regulations.
Griffith was elected in the Republican wave of 2010 in part by targeting the Democratic incumbent, then-Rep. Rick Boucher, for supporting a cap-and-trade climate measure in the House.
“The Clean Power Plan is clearly in violation of the law, in my opinion, based on a number of reasons; see the briefs written by the attorney general for West Virginia. It’s a lot like the MACT rules that closed down two coal-fired power plants in my district,” Griffith said. “EPA is playing a dangerous game, and what they’re doing is passing regulations when they know or ought to know they have no real legal authority to do so.”
Although Griffith said energy hasn’t been the Freedom Caucus’ focus up to now, he hopes that will change.
“I agree with Cynthia, that is something we hope to take up at some point,” he said. “We’re not on the same committee, but we’re on the same page.”
But both Lummis and Griffith stopped short of calling for change in Republicans’ handling of energy issues.
Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has been criticized at times by conservatives during his long congressional career. Before he became chairman, he sponsored a lightbulb efficiency measure that Rush Limbaugh excoriated, and he generally has a more moderate voting record than most House Republican committee chairmen. But Upton has been a critic of many Obama administration regulations and aggressively investigated the troubled loan that the Department of Energy made to bankrupt solar manufacturer Solyndra.
Lummis said she’s been generally pretty pleased with the way Upton and his committee have responded to concerns of Western states and other energy-producing states about energy and environmental issues.
“Fred and the Energy and Commerce Committee have put out some legislation that’s been very positive on energy,” Lummis said. “And over on the Natural Resources [Committee] side, when it comes to specifically offshore and onshore federal land production, I think we’ve put out some positive [measures].”
‘A terrible misconception’
It didn’t take long for Lummis to see the controversial line she had crossed when she joined the Freedom Caucus.
At her initial meetings, Lummis said the group discussed the need for reforms and the importance of following House rules.
Outside, Republicans — from leadership to various committees — were criticizing the caucus and questioning the motives of its members.
“I was going to steering committee meetings and to deputy whip committee meetings and listening to traditional or establishment Republicans just trash members that were more conservative and want to mete out punishment on these people,” Lummis said. “Then I’d go meet with [the Freedom Caucus], and I thought they were very sincere, and not angry. I thought it was just a terrible misconception.”
At that point, Lummis said she opted to join “the guys who are trying to return to using the rules.”
“In a lot of ways, I joined the Freedom Caucus because it was a disconnect between the larger group of the Republican Congress and the minority who’s on the conservative end, because a lot of what the conservative end wanted fell in the realm of process reforms and less punishment being dished out for voting your district, and things like that,” she said.
And Lummis wasn’t alone.
The caucus had already drawn more than three dozen other members. With a few exceptions, they represent ruby-red districts where President Obama — and his energy and environmental priorities — is highly unpopular. Without exception, they rack up huge numbers from the conservative group Heritage Action for America, and terrible ratings in the League of Conservation Voters’ annual scorecard. Several of these lawmakers are members of the Natural Resources and Oversight and Government Reform panels who, in Lummis’ estimation, don’t subscribe to the status quo on Capitol Hill.
“I call those two the committees of misfit toys,” she said. “It just seems that a lot of the misfit toys ended up on those two committees.”
Over time, Lummis said, she has come to understand the unifying theme for both committees.
Many members of the Natural Resources Committee, for example, are focused on Western energy issues — the management of federal land and resources, Lummis said. They’ve also been turned off by the use of new maneuvers on Capitol Hill, including discharge petitions and motions to recommit, suspending rules more than using rules, command and control, and a reward-and-punishment structure instead of traditional committee processes, she added.
“I suppose it’s because a lot of people who came from the West served in their state legislatures and they saw their state legislatures function because they followed the rules, they balanced their budgets because they are required to, they cut spending, they say no to people, people understand because they understand going into debt is not a good thing,” said Lummis, who spent 16 years in the Wyoming Legislature and eight as state treasurer before being elected to Congress in 2008. “There’s just a more practical sensibility in the West.”
Freedom Caucus members who sit on the Natural Resources panel alongside Lummis are Republican Reps. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, John Fleming of Louisiana, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Jody Hice of Georgia, Raúl Labrador of Idaho and Alex Mooney of West Virginia, according to a list of members compiled by the Pew Research Center.
As for the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Lummis said a drive to reform the federal government and Congress attracted her and 11 other caucus members: Republican Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan, Rod Blum of Iowa, Ken Buck of Colorado, Ron DeSantis of Florida, Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, Jim Jordan of Ohio, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, Gary Palmer of Alabama, and Gosar and Hice.
“We’re reformers — there are people on OGR that want to reform government, including reforming Congress to make it work again,” Lummis said. “It’s actually more logical than it might first appear.”
Reporter Manuel Quiñones contributed.