Sustainable Chemistry in the Era of Divided Government

Contributor III
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Contributed by Carl Maxwell, Advocacy Manager, American Chemical Society

Unless you have been off the grid over the last three months, it is clear the era of divided government is fully formed. With Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives and the GOP holding serve in the Senate, the prospects for legislative achievement may seem remote. However, the partisan nature of our current government hides the prospects for real progress on federal support of sustainable chemistry.

Let’s start with the obvious: The Democrats won 40+ seats in the November 2018 elections. With this victory comes total control of the House of Representatives. The Majority sets the rules and agenda, leaving the minority party a few procedural paths to complain, but no prospect for changing legislation. In the Senate, the minority Democrats can delay, shape, and occasionally block legislation, but ultimately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) determines the floor agenda, meaning consensus is necessary for action. Of course, ultimately the President must sign any legislation.

For all the media coverage of the Green New Deal, the proposal is more idea than real legislation. From a legislative standpoint, we’ve already seen passage of a major federal lands bill, and there is strong desire to do bipartisan energy legislation, as well as possible infrastructure bills. Other energy/environment topics are likely to be small or partisan, with Democrats attempting to advance measures on climate change, renewable energy, and protecting the environment, while Senate Republicans focus on expanding drilling and mining on federal lands and cutting regulations.

One area that is showing promise, is possible bipartisan legislation to expand the federal role in promoting green and sustainable chemistry. Congressional activity in this realm is not new: Twice Congress has authorized, but not funded, a sustainable chemistry program at the National Science Foundation (NSF). A decade ago, the House of Representatives twice passed legislation creating a broad interagency federal program to support development of green chemistry at NSF, the Department of Energy, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

What has changed is Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) are leading an effort in the Senate to invigorate green and sustainable chemistry in the federal government. In 2018, they introduced the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act. The legislation seeks to create an interagency task force to coordinate research across federal agencies, while also promoting partnerships with the private sector, and increasing reporting to Congress to understand government efforts in this field. Coons and Collins will reintroduce the legislation in 2019, and the prospects for legislation in the House are good, where several members are discussing cosponsoring the bill.

With Democrats in control of the House, and a GOP Senate, we are likely in for plenty of tired shouting matches on cable news, but in the realm of green and sustainable chemistry, there is a real possibility of agreement. If you believe in the exciting research green chemistry can bring to the chemical enterprise, a Democrat Congress/Republican Senate might just be the catalyst for which we have been looking.

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1 Comment
Contributor III

Sorry, but as with anything worthwhile, I do not think that “government” should be as involved as it already is. I know it is the reality today, so fine, take advantage of it if you can. But, apart from some truly “long range” or “speculative” programs with potential high PUBLIC benefits, the government should not be “funding” much of anything.

I am ALL for “Green Chemistry” and “Sustainability” because they are the most truly efficient and profitable ways to use chemistry. Government can and should “protect the commonwealth” by preventing abuse of resources and endangerment of the public, but beyond that the most effective engine of innovation is unimpeded individual competition for ideas and products, according to the compromises made by the populace.

We wring our hands about “divided” government, all kinds of “back room” deals, protectionism, cronyism and power influencing, but as one wag said, “ If the government didn’t have any ‘favors’ to sell, they couldn’t be selling them.” It may be a necessary mechanism now to try to obtain funding from government sources or contracts, and I am sorry for you if that is the case. But, DON’T tell me that it is “good for chemistry” or necessary to achieve progess in either the sciences or society.

Best regards,

Steven Cooke