Since assuming the chairmanship of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee following the retaking of the lower chamber by the GOP last November, the number of Rep. Fred Upton’s top donors that are energy companies have more than doubled from the 2009-2010 donating cycle to the 2010-2011 period.
Critics say this is just a small portion of industry donations behind Upton’s flip from a moderate Michigan Republican to an anti-regulation, hard-right legislator, now a member of the deficit-reduction supercommittee.
“The polluters have deep pockets and they have turned an innately conservative issue that is traditionally bipartisan into something polarizing,” Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, told The Michigan Messenger. “The correlation between Upton’s voting record and his increase in contributions from polluting industries is striking.”
Upton’s path — from having nearly 20 years of legislative service with no major committee assignments to the major positions he now embodies — is marked with campaign donations, fundraising trips and influential friends.
A moderate past
Upton, grandson of Whirlpool Corporation co-founder Frederick Upton, was raised in St. Joseph, Mich., known as the twin city to neighboring Benton Harbor across the river. He now represents the state’s 6th Congressional District, which stretches along the Michigan-Indiana border.
His reputation as a political figure was similarly even-handed; he “embodied balance,” said a recent Washington Post feature, and he was known for reaching across the aisle.
Following Barack Obama’s election, Upton said he hoped to work closely with Obama, and regularly met with Rahm Emanuel, the president’s first White House chief of staff. In fact, Emanuel told Upton “something to the effect of, ‘You’re the guy we’re going to be looking to’ ” to build coalitions with Republicans, according to the Kalamazoo Gazette.
His voting record also strayed from more doctrinaire GOP members — during the 110th Congress, he broke from the Republican line on floor votes more often than most House Republicans, and supported then-President George W. Bush less than half of the time,according to a voting analysis (PDF).
Particularly notable was his position on energy issues. “Climate change is a serious problem that necessitates serious solutions,” said Upton in April 2009, and again in June 2009: “We have a unique opportunity and a responsibility to reduce emissions and preserve our economy – the American public is desperate for solutions, but a national energy tax is not the answer.”
In 2007, Upton was a major supporter of legislation to improve lighting efficiency as well as one of the few Republicans that, as recently as 2009 supported increased funding for a U.S. Department of Energy loan program that would help automakers build more efficient cars.
Turning a new leaf
It is on energy issues that Upton has made the most dramatic change. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed from December 2010 titled “How Congress Can Stop the EPA’s Power Grab,” Upton detailed his new objections to environmental regulation, warning against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “unconstitutional power grab that will kill millions of jobs.”
He then went on to be the sponsor of the bill passed in the House that aims to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases; he flipped on his long-time support for energy efficient light bulbs (“There is no other explanation for why Fred Upton changed his mind on light bulbs then politics. It was an easy target,” says Taylor-Miesle); andpushed legislation to speed up the Keystone XL pipeline despite a recent oil spill near his district.
Money in the game
Upton was also accused by critics of asking the chairman of a major energy company a “softball question” during a congressional hearing. This may not have been particularly notable, except that this major energy company, DTE Energy, was also a major donor to Upton.
DTE Energy was the fourth-largest donor to Upton’s re-election campaign in 2010, giving him $20,400, and is his top contributor so far in the 2012 election cycle, according to Open Secrets. The company is currently being sued by the EPA for failing to install pollution controls on one of its major coal-fired power plants.
The energy and natural resources lobby is the 8th-largest donation industry, with more than 75 percent of its campaign donations going to Republican candidates, according to an analysis by Open Secrets. In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, it gave over $25 million.
According to Open Secrets, Upton has raised over $280,000 from the electrical utilities, oil and gas and energy industries for his campaign committee and Leadership PAC so far in the 2011-2012 campaign cycle. This is more than he raised in the 2009-2010 cycle ($278,500).
Seventy-two percent of his campaign contributions come from outside his district and 66 percent from outside his state, according to MapLight. As outside campaign contributions to Upton grow, so does his importance on the national stage, said Tyler Slocum, director of the non-profit lobbying group Public Citizen’s Energy project.
“There is no question that major fossil fuel producing companies are behind the [de-regulation] effort,” said Slocum, “and Upton has been all too eager to be a cheerleader for their effort.”
The Michigan congressman also receives money through his Team Republicans Utilizing Sensible Tactics Leadership PAC, which has raised more than $468,000 since the start of 2011. In the 2012 cycle, CMS Energy is the leading contributor to Trust PAC, giving $14,000 in individual and PAC donations.
Not all of Upton’s ties to the energy industry are available on his disclosure forms. Two former energy lobbyists work for his committee. His staff director Gary Andres most recently worked for the lobbying firm Dutko Worldwide, which caters to Aspect Energy LLC, Duke Energy Corp., PDVSA USA Inc. and NV Energy Inc., among others.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s general counsel, James Barnette, has a similar background. He most recently worked for the lobbying firm Steptoe and Johnson, whose clients include Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, Rio Tinto London Ltd. and Weyerhaeuser. Prior to entering lobbying, he served on the Energy and Commerce Committee staff from 1995 to 2006.
Upton was also spotted in the front row of an American Petroleum Institute event highlighting the oil industry’s agenda for 2011, and has met with some of the top industry executives since his appointment as chairman of the committee.
Why the flip?
Upton is considered to be in a safe Republican district, so are campaign contributions the only reason for his move to the right? Bill Ballenger, a former state representative and senator, told The Michigan Indpendent, “the threat to Upton is not from a Democrat in a general election but from his right in a Republican primary.”
At a time when the GOP is catering to a more right-wing message, the challenge to Upton’s seat by the very conservative former state Rep. Jack Hoogendyk would have been “enough for any politician to be ‘scared straight,’” says Ballenger.
Taylor-Miesle, with the National Resources Defense Council Action Fund, sees Upton’s turn as politically expedient for him.
“I believe that Fred Upton is a smart member of Congress. He knows the science and economic case for protecting the environment and public health. Given his history, I don’t think that those fundamental beliefs have changed,” said Taylor-Miesle. “But he also knows that the Senate is probably not going to pass anything in its current climate. So he can appease his radical base with crazy legislation putting kids health at risk without a real likelihood of it ever happening.”
However, she says, that logic is not an excuse for the legislation he is supporting: “At the end of the day, however, anyway you dice it, he is endangering my family [and] your family.”
Eartha Melzer contributed to this reportTags: climate change, Duke Energy, Fred Upton, House Energy & Commerce Committee, Jack Hoogendyk, Keystone XL pipeline, Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, Rahm Emanuel, TRUST Pac, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. House, Whirlpool