The Mystery of Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich is a very smart, very intellectual kind of guy. Not only does he hold a Ph.D., but he professes to love science. In May 2002, after leaving Congress, he could be found calling for a tripling of the budget of the National Science Foundation. 

Just look at this 2008 Slate exchange, discussing Gingrich’s plans to use market mechanisms to address global warming:

Kensington, Md.: Kudos to you for this new initiative, and we all need for you to be successful (speaking as a liberal here). But why do you suppose conservatives have been so virulently hostile to science these past few decades? It’s really like watching the 16th century papacy coming to terms with astronomy.

Newt Gingrich: Since I headed the Republican House which doubled the size of the NIH budget, served on the Hart-Rudman Comission, which said the decline of math and science education was our second greatest threat as a country, and helped save the international space station when short-sighted people wanted to kill it, I’m not sure I identify with your question.

I  identify with it. While Gingrich and his revolutionaries were running the congressional show in the 1990s, they dismantled their own scientific advisory office, the Office of Technology Assessment. Then they held show hearings to cast doubt on the science of climate and the science of ozone depletion.

They loved science–except when they didn’t.

Now Gingrich is back again, as a possible GOP presidential candidate. And he is calling for nothing less than dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency.

There is a more thorough explanation of what Gingrich means on his website, where this Republican-founded agency is dubbed a “job-killing, centralizing engine of ideological litigation and regulation that blocks economic progress at every turn.” We are not going easy, then. What’s the central charge?

Since the EPA’s first operating budget (fiscal year 1970), the agency’s workforce has more than quadrupled, which coincides with the EPA now costing taxpayers more than ten times what it did forty years ago. At more than $10 billion, the EPA’s annual budget exceeds the GDP of about 60 countries worldwide, and it has entrenched in the American psyche the notion that protecting the environment must come with high costs and a destructive culture of litigation.

Wow, more than $ 10 billion? I didn’t know the EPA’s budget off hand before reading this, and I have to say, I find that pretty cheap in light of what the agency is actually charged with doing.

Gingrich’s contention, however, is that the EPA cannot be reformed to make it more market friendly; it must be replaced entirely by an “Environmental Solutions Agency”:

…incorporating the statutory responsibilities of the old EPA while making necessary statutory changes that will eliminate the job-killing regulatory abuses and power grabs of the old EPA.

The new ESA will focus on developing actual solutions to environmental challenges rather than simply trying to litigate them into existence. The ESA will work with industry instead of dictating to industry and incentivize the use of newer technologies instead of punishing current businesses.

So that’s the proposal–and reading it, you really have to wonder what Gingrich is playing at here. Clean air and clean water are known to be overwhelmingly popular, and a frontal assault on the EPA seems highly unlikely to succeed.

Anti-government rhetoric, though, is always a campaign plus. And further, we know that deep down Gingrich really cares about environmental issues, albeit in a rather idiosyncratic way. His book A Contract With the Earth espoused an admittedly far softer form of the same business-oriented environmentalism, calling for governments to set up incentives to help companies help the environment.

In other words, you might think of the call to abolish the EPA as a kind of curious love child of Gingrich the environmental policy wonk and Gingrich the aspiring candidate.

Nevertheless, the whole enterprise founders not only on the popularity of environmental protections, but the basic fact that, guess what, environmental regulations are already economically efficient. According to a recent Office of Management and Budget analysisnotes Columbia University Earth Institute director Steven Cohen, “EPA issued 30 major regulations from 1999 to 2009 at an estimated cost of $25.8 billion to $29.2 billion against estimated benefits ranging from $81.9 billion to $533 billion.” Those are returns any investor would kill for. 

The good news, I suppose, is that if Gingrich does indeed run for president, he may have to explain his anti-EPA position at some point to mainstream America, and not just to the voters in Republican primaries.

Good luck with that.