Greening the Capitol

Since taking control of Congress two years ago, the Democrats may not have rolled back climate change or put a halt to the Bush administration’s erosion of America’s environmental safeguards - but they have managed to make the Capitol itself greener than it’s ever been.

Last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched a major new initiative aimed at turning Congress into a model of environmental best practice. Some of the changes were small, simple things: Meeting-rooms had their lights rigged to motion detectors, vending machines were ordered to be turned off at night, and a bike share program was set up for staffers. Even the House cafeteria got a face-lift: Freedom fries were swapped for organic arugula and free-range eggs, and styrofoam containers gave way to biodegradable plates and cutlery.

Other changes were more significant - and more controversial. Efforts to install energy-efficient spotlights to illuminate the Capitol dome met with fierce opposition from Republicans, who called the $671,900 project a “ridiculous boondoggle”. The decision to spend almost $90,000 on carbon offsets nearly sparked a full-blown inquiry. And only this week, lawmakers threw an almighty strop over new rules requiring them to trade their taxpayer-funded SUVs and luxury gas-guzzlers for more fuel-efficient models.

So far, though, it’s the Senate that’s really been letting the side down. Its cafeterias still use styrofoam containers and send their waste to landfills rather than compost heaps; meanwhile, many Senate staffers still use non-recycled copy paper. While the House is on course to cut its carbon emissions from 91,000 tons to 24,000 tons, the Senate has yet to even release its emissions data. And worst of all, coal-state senators - take a bow, Mitch McConnell and Robert Byrd - have blocked tentative efforts to switch the Capitol Power Plant, a filthy water-heating complex that’s been dubbed the “armpit of the Capitol," from coal to clean-burning natural gas.

The upshot of all this foot-dragging is that Nancy Pelosi’s plan is still very much a work in progress. That’s a crying shame: The “green Capitol” has the potential to serve as a potent symbol of the Democrats’ commitment to the environmental movement. That, though, can only happen if lawmakers quit grumbling, stop stalling, and show their willingness to make the same sacrifices that they expect from the rest of us.