Bob Inglis on lessons learned from a career in Congress

Bob Inglis discusses challenges he faced during his congressional career, fossil fuels, and how to defeat stereotypes associated with environmentalism. Photo: Associated Press

FLORIDA, December 7, 2012 — Since leaving Congress, former South Carolina Representative Bob Inglis has devoted his time to environmental issues. He believes that market principles, properly applied, are key to solving the world’s environmental problems. 

For instance, fossil fuels are the backbone of the world’s energy supply. However, their extensive use can damage the world’s ecosystems. If the cost efficiency calculations that lead us to use them extensively exclude the costs of the damage they cause, we will overuse them. Including third-party (external) costs to our cost-benefit calculations will let the market determine the correct use of fossil fuels with no assistance needed from regulators.

Environmentalism has become such a loaded subject that the term itself is often used as a pejorative. Nonetheless, many who lean right-of-center are very concerned about the environment. Their objection to the environmentalism of liberal eco-warriors like Al Gore isn’t about the ends of an environment preserved for future generations and the good of all, but the means of the heavy, dead hand of government and stifling bureaucracy. So how can the anti-environment stereotypes associated conservatives be defeated?

Inglis has much to say on the subject, but he also has some useful insights into the current infighting in the GOP. Ron Paul’s followers, members of the Tea Party movement, social and religious conservatives, and establishment Republicans are locked in a struggle over the future of the GOP. It’s a struggle in which moderates seem to be taking a beating.   

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Joseph F. Cotto: Many on the right claim that America should continue using fossil fuels due to cost efficiency. What are your views regarding this idea?

Rep. Bob Inglis: Let’s make those fossil fuels (and all fuels) accountable for all their costs, let’s eliminate all subsidies for all fuels and let’s change what we tax (off income; on emissions). Then the free enterprise system will sort out the winners and the losers. Coal-fired electricity looks much cheaper than nuclear power until you factor in the health impacts. Soot from coal-fired electrical plants causes 23,600 premature deaths each year in the United States and over 3,000,000 lost work days. 

Those costs don’t magically disappear because there’s no such thing as a free lunch. We pay those costs not on our power meters but in hidden ways—in higher health insurance premiums, in higher Medicare and Medicaid costs, in cost-shift at our hospitals. Stick those costs on the power meter (and get them off of our health insurance tab), and we’d be building emission-less nuclear power plants and deploying wind and solar in a number of places. The air would be cleaner, and we’d be expanding our economy. 

Cotto: Very often, environmentalism is perceived as being anything but a right-of-center cause. Have you found success in defeating this stereotype?

Rep. Inglis: Since conservatives have left the conversation about energy and climate, the liberals have naturally come up with complicated grow-government tax schemes, clumsy regulations and fickle, let-me-lead-you-around-by-the-nose, tax incentives. If we’d stop shrinking in science denial and start stepping forward to engage in the competition of ideas, we could deliver muscular solutions. And the good news is that there are progressives who would welcome the kind of price signals that we’d be advancing. Rather than just moaning and complaining, we could be making policy!

Cotto: In the Republican Party, followers of Ron Paul are storming the establishment’s gates. At the same time, social rightists are attempting to become the GOP’s dominant faction. All of this has left moderates more or less out of the picture. During the years ahead, which path do you see the Party taking? 

Rep. Inglis: When it comes to the protection of innocent human life, conservatives and libertarians should speak as one. When it comes to issues of sexuality among consenting adults, conservative pulpits should blaze with righteousness, and libertarians should protect us from using government to impose ourselves on others. When it comes to institutions that restrain evil (like our armed forces) and that enable vigorous interstate and international commerce, libertarians should recognize the strength of conservatism. United and appropriately deferential to one another, we can help to from a more perfect union.

Cotto: What was the greatest challenge of your congressional career? What was its best reward? 

Rep. Inglis: My greatest challenge—which I obviously failed to handle well!—was trying to lead when I should have been listening. People wanted me to reflect the pain and uncertainty of the Great Recession and the looming debt and deficits. I wanted to lead to solutions. I might have listened more and talked less, and added value later by leading after a longer period of reflecting that anger and frustration.

Now I’m free to talk though! And I’m excited about taking the best idea I had in Congress—a revenue-neutral tax swap—and trying to turn it into policy by convincing conservatives of the strength of their own philosophy.

Cotto: What led you into public service, and why did you decide to become an advocate for environmental causes?

Rep. Inglis: I grew up in Bluffton, SC when it was still a tiny town in the undiscovered Low County of South Carolina. Life was shrimping and crabbing and fishing with my three brothers and my sister and our neighbors’ five boys. I went to Duke, met and married my college sweetheart, and then went to the University of Virginia for law school. I practiced commercial real estate law, and my wife and I started our family that ultimately grew to a son and four daughters. 

In 1992, having never run for office before, I challenged a 6-year incumbent Democrat in Congress. In a miracle I got elected in a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment. At the end of a self-imposed 6-year term limit, I challenged 32-year incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings. Note to self: do not challenge 32-year incumbent U.S. Senator in 70 percent “right track” territory! After losing the Senate race in 1998, I returned to the practice of commercial real estate law with my firm in Greenville, SC. Six years later I ran again for the U.S. House, winning easily in 2004, 2006 and 2008. Then came 2010 and poetic justice! The same anti-incumbent sentiment that took me to Congress in 1992 washed me out in a Republican primary in 2010.

Since 2010 I’ve been advancing this revenue-neutral tax swap as a conservative solution to our energy and climate challenge. We call it the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, and it’s housed at George Mason University. Along the way I also spent a semester at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University conducting energy policy discussions, and I taught for a semester at the Nicholas School at Duke University.


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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