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As House turns from blue to red, will 'Green the Capitol' survive?

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010; 6:44 PM

Just outside the doors of Congress, the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree glows with strands of energy-efficient LED lights. Inside the Capitol, thousands of compact fluorescent light bulbs illuminate the final days of the session. Staffers print with recycled paper, eat with compostable forks and grab sodas from low-emission vending machines.

Congress has gone to great lengths in recent years to reduce its carbon footprint, with a substantial share of that effort stemming from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) "Green the Capitol" initiative.

Now, Democrats are headed to the minority and Republican leaders - who were skeptical of Pelosi's program from the start - are preparing to trim the House budget. So will Green the Capitol see its own "footprint" reduced by the new majority?

"I definitely think it is" a target for cuts, said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. "I don't know how much of it is puff without substance and how much of it is really consequential [energy] reduction."

A GOP leadership aide, who was granted anonymity to discuss decisions that aren't official yet, said "there are no plans to do away with the 'Greening' program" but added that the initiative would be less self-congratulatory than Republicans believe it has been under Democrats.

"We think a conservation program should be carried out as a taxpayer protection strategy, not a public relations strategy," the aide said.

Republican aides and lawmakers said they planned to weigh each element of the initiative.

"Some of the measures may have saved some money," said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the leader of the conservative Tea Party Caucus. "We have to look at it on a cost- effectiveness basis."

Green the Capitol has been controversial since it was born in 2007, as some Republicans suggested the program was more symbolic than substantive. They were particularly critical of the House's move to purchase $90,000 worth of carbon offsets at the Chicago Climate Exchange, money designed to cancel out the House's carbon emissions by funding programs to reduce emissions elsewhere. That purchase won't be repeated under a GOP majority.

And then there are the forks.

"I've had more complaints about ... the utensils than any other single thing. And that's from Democrats and Republicans," said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Administration Committee.

Since biodegradable utensils were introduced in House-side eateries, lawmakers, aides and even a few reporters have grumbled that - Earth-friendly or not - the forks break and the knives don't cut very well. Republican leaders could easily earn bipartisan goodwill simply by finding stronger utensils.

Other environmental changes are more likely to survive.

The Capitol Power Plant has switched from burning coal to natural gas, and won't be going back. The compact fluorescent light bulbs are here to stay. And some green initiatives predate the current majority - the Capitol Christmas tree was first adorned with LED lights in 2005, when the GOP was in charge.

A report released in April by House officials boasted that Green the Capitol has reduced energy consumption in House office buildings by more than 20 percent, reduced water use by more than 30 percent and saved or recycled more than 2,000 tons of paper.

"We hope the program continues given its success in fostering energy efficiency and saving taxpayers money," Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said.

Advocates for the initiative say its cost savings should appeal to Republicans regardless of their environmental views.

"What I think Green the Capitol has shown is that reducing greenhouse gases doesn't cost, it pays," said Scott Slesinger, legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Even if you don't believe in climate change you have to believe in saving money on utilities."

The 111th Congress: By the numbers

From the stimulus and health-care legislation to financial reform and the pending tax-cut deal, Congress has had a weighty agenda these last two years. But has the 111th Congress - which could end as soon as this weekend - been unusually productive? Let's go to the numbers.

The latest data aren't available yet, but through Nov. 30, members in the two chambers had introduced a total of 13,429 bills and resolutions this Congress, while holding 2,236 recorded votes and filling 45,711 pages of the Congressional Record.

Most importantly, the 111th Congress had enacted 285 bills into law through November. That's fewer than any Congress going back at least two decades. Asked why, Senate Historian Donald Ritchie suggested two reasons.

"One is that the trend over time has been to combine things - bills are getting bigger, there are more pages in them and fewer bills get passed," Ritchie said.

The second reason Ritchie cited was health-care reform.

"They spent a very large percentage of their time in the last session on one big bill and that backed everything up," he said. "They had a more focused set of priorities, I suppose."

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