Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on Saving American Democracy

VICE Impact talks to the junior Senator from Rhode Island about money in politics, climate change, and making democracy work for you.

by Nick Chedli Carter
May 4 2017, 5:00pm

Sheldon Whitehouse

Sheldon Whitehouse would be a natural fit if you were to look up "U.S. Senator" in the dictionary. Following a lineage of diplomats and prominent businessmen, the junior Senator from Rhode Island -- first elected in 2007 -- carries the confidence (name, and haircut) of a bona fide member of the American political class. It's that very confidence that has made him an increasingly genuine and outspoken critic of money in politics, and he appears to take personal offense to the trend of monied interests hijacking American public policy.

During the Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Whitehouse took then-nominee Neil Gorsuch to task and stood out for his impassioned remarks about declining democracy in a post Citizens United America. As a leader from the Ocean State, he is keenly aware of the direct threat of climate change, and sees the recent influx of dark money into Congress largely contributing to environmental issues becoming hyperpartisan.

VICE Impact's Director of Advocacy, Nick Carter, sat down with Senator Whitehouse in the Hart Senate Office Building on the eve of the People's Climate March in D.C.

VICE IMPACT: You've been pretty outspoken about campaign finance. Where do you see that sort of intersectionality? And why we're in this current state of affairs right now?

Senator Whitehouse: The failure in Congress of action on climate change is the dark money problem. When I first got to the Senate, for three years we had more or less non-stop bipartisan activity on climate change. It was exactly what you'd expect: new big issue, both parties working together, hearings, bills -- John McCain even campaigned for president as a Republican on a strong climate change platform. Then in January 2010, Citizens United the fossil fuel industry asked for that decision [Citizens United v FEC] and immediately went to work with it.

What that decision did was allow the fossil fuel industry to not only spend more insidiously, but also threaten to spend unlimited amounts of money against anybody who dared to cross them on climate change. They focused that artillery on the Republican party. They broke the back of Republican resistance and basically took over the Republican party as the political wing of the fossil fuel industry.

So what is it going to take if you're a 25-year-old out in Ohio and you're concerned about your temperature rising? What can you do about it?

Have them go Google who the corporations were who participated in the President Obama's climate pledge, and then ask them to describe their lobbying expenditures in Congress on climate change. What you'll find is the dirty secret of climate change, which is that in Congress the bad guys -- the fossil fuel industry-- are relentless with unlimited money and unlimited threats. The good guys -- the Apples, the Coca Colas, the Googles, the Unilevers -- don't make it an issue.

Just yesterday, the trade group for Silicon Valley, which actually includes green companies like Bloom Energy and SolarCity, came to Washington. They had their top list of six priorities, and green energy and climate change were not even on their list.

A big takeaway from this election was the emphasis on jobs and the economy. But the reality is we're not talking about a hell of a lot of jobs -- particularly with coal jobs. In fact, there is more evidence out there showing that renewable energy is a bigger job creator than the fossil fuel industry.

The reality is that there are more green energy jobs than coal jobs, and it's growing explosively in that area, whereas coal is collapsing. The big coal companies find ways to lay off more and more miners as they're automating coal mining.

So people should call their members of congress, but what about at the more local level? For example, the Sierra Club is involved in an effort in bringing more municipalities, cities, and towns to adopting clean energy. Do you see that as a viable route while the federal government gets its act together?

I see that as an extremely viable route. When you get down to the municipal level, you're kind of below the radar of the fossil fuel industry's denial and political threats operation. So you stand a much greater likelihood of succeeding at the local level. Once you've succeeded in ten places in a state at the local level, that's a message up to those senators, "Hey, wait a minute. You might be on the wrong side of this." And it's just added pressure to break the back of the fossil fuel denial and threats machinery.

So as we anxiously wait to see what the administration's infrastructure plan is going to be, you've been active in some legislation of your own: the SAFE Bridges Act, for example. When it comes to the direction of infrastructure spending in this country, where do you see that opportunity and what are you most optimistic about? What are you most concerned about?

We certainly have an enormous need for infrastructure investment. We can put millions of people to work doing necessary, indeed, overdue infrastructure improvements. So one direction we need to move is to put adequate money behind the infrastructure needs of our country. The other way we need to move is coast-wards. Changes along the coasts are going to have dramatic effects on coastal roads, on coastal waste water infrastructure, on bridges, and on beaches.

When you think about some of your colleagues across the aisle, do you think if everything was equal that you would see more collaboration, or bipartisan support for climate change initiatives?

We would have had a bill by now. The fact that we're here now, still with nothing going on, is a testament to the remorseless attitude and the relentless resources of the fossil fuel industry protecting their massive subsidy.

You have to be sensitive as well, in terms of the realities of being an elected official in the Unites States right now. You're up for reelection in 2018. How do you walk that line and ensure that you're not falling into the same traps as some other elected officials by making sure that you're beholden to the issues most important to you?

I judge myself by what a Rhode Islander would say in 2080. What would they look around and see? And when they saw that, what would they look back and think about me? Had I tried hard enough? Had I done everything that I could?

What I hope and pray is the case is that Rhode Islanders looking back in 2080, this isn't really a big deal for because we got ahead of it, and sea level rise stayed at two feet, and we didn't get the huge feedback loops that drove the planet off the safe margins that we've lived in for a couple hundred thousand years now.

A big focus for VICE Impact is to facilitate action. What would you say to young people who want to get the ear of individuals like yourself, and how do we engage more people in this ongoing fight that's not going away anytime soon?

What I would say is that, you are going to make a difference. You are going to win this fight. We just need to make sure that you win this fight soon enough that you still have a really, traditionally habitable planet to live in. And to bring that day forward, write letters to the editor, study and propagate your science, run for office, send letters, and make calls to American corporations holding them to the account for the fact that they are not lobbying yet on this issue. Show up at the marches. Make your voice heard.The most immediate thing that we could do is to get behind the swing seats in the 2018 House election, and make sure that President Trump has a Democrat Speaker of the House to push back on this nonsense and to investigate the terrible conflicts of interest between his administration and the fossil fuel industry. That changes everything.