R.I.P. Howard Wolpe


Rep. Howard Wolpe (photo: House of Representatives)

In the 1980s, U.S. Rep. Howard Wolpe (D-Michigan) led the enactment of sanctions against the apartheid South African regime, including overriding President Reagan’s veto of sanctions legislation. On the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, he investigated mismangement and wrongdoing under the first Bush Administration and called for early action on global warming. Mr. Wolpe, a reminder of the days before the House leadership descended into what he came to call right-wing extremism, died on October 25, at 71.

I remember Howard Wolpe in particular from my days working on the majority professional staff of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee (1991-1995). Mr. Wolpe was one of my favorite committee members – really one of my favorite members of Congress. A note from a 1991 committee hearing on global warming that I staffed is below.

From the Washington Post obit October 28:

Ex-congressman Howard Wolpe of Michigan dies at 71

Former U.S. representative Howard Wolpe of Michigan, a liberal Democrat who served seven terms in Congress and was a powerful advocate for economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, died Oct. 25 at his home in Saugatuck, Mich. He was 71. …

He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1978 representing southwestern Michigan and made his greatest mark serving for a decade as chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa. Rep. Wolpe was among a core group of congressmen who championed sanctions against South Africa because of its violent, white-minority rule.

The debate over divesting financial interests in South Africa also reached colleges and corporate boardrooms. One of the largest employers in Rep. Wolpe’s district, Kellogg’s, had operations in South Africa and objected to sanctions. The company also funded efforts to unseat him, but Rep. Wolpe managed to keep his seat in large part by staying attentive to the needs of his constituents.

Taking on the issue of apartheid paid few, if any, dividends among his constituents. He took other political risks by frustrating the Reagan White House’s policy of “constructive engagement” in southern Africa. …

Rep. Wolpe worked to pass a trade embargo on South Africa that would prohibit all U.S. companies from conducting business there. The Senate approved a slightly milder bill, and Rep. Wolpe was persuaded to accept it with a promise that the Senate would override a presidential veto. In the end, both chambers overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto.

The bill became the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which banned most new trade in South Africa and included the release of political prisoner Nelson Mandela as a condition for lifting the sanctions. …

In addition to his work on South Africa, Rep. Wolpe was involved in crafting legislation to provide famine relief and development assistance to Africa.

In 1992, Rep. Wolpe lost his U.S. House district to reapportionment. …

Obits in Battle Creek Enquirer, Detroit Free Press, and Kalamazoo Gazette.

Shortly before he died, Mr. Wolpe wrote an open letter to Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan), currently the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who represents much of the same area that used to make up Mr. Wolpe’s district. Earlier this year Mr. Upton led a partisan onslaught of climate science denialism as his committee, and later the House of Representatives, voted to repeal the science-based EPA Endangerment Finding and prohibit regulation of greenhouse gases. See Kalamazoo Gazette, October 14: “Howard Wolpe: U.S. Rep. Fred Upton has become a ‘right-wing extremist’”

Full text of Mr. Wolpe’s letter:


Honorable Fred Upton
Member of Congress, Michigan’s 6th District

Dear Fred:

Failing to get through to you any other way, I concluded I had no option but to attempt to reach you through the medium of an Open Letter.

Fred, we’ve known each other for many years. Despite my being a Democrat and you being a Republican you will recall that I helped in getting you elected in the first place by making members of my own campaign organization available to you in your fight against Mark Siljander. I have always known you to be honest, moderate, reasonable, and conscientious, and I have always valued our friendship.

Against this backdrop, writing this letter is extremely difficult for me. But I can not tell you how painfully disappointed I have been to see you morph into a right wing extremist. Why? Because of your desire for a Committee chairmanship? You are too smart and too knowledgeable to believe much of the nonsense you have been espousing on global warming and many other issues.

Fred, I remember something that my predecessor, Congressman Garry Brown, once said to me: “There is life after Congress, and at the end of the day, you still have to look at yourself in the mirror.” It is simply not worth selling your soul to appease the Tea Party extremists within your party. I am again living in Michigan, and I can not tell you how much your metamorphosis has cost you among many of your previous supporters. The dismay and disappointment, and sense of betrayal, are very widespread — and this may be a profound understatement.

Now that you have a position on the “Super Committee,” you have a chance to do what is right for our country. Please don’t go in lock step with your Republican leadership. Show some backbone and do the right thing. We simply must regain a sense of civility and rationality in our politics, and you have a chance now to make a significant contribution. I hope you will seize it.

Best personal regards,


Howard Wolpe
Former Member of Congress, Michigan’s 3rd district


(photo: Kalamazoo Gazette, 1988)

On the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Mr. Wolpe chaired the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight for two years (1991-1992), holding dozens of hearings. He took on Bush Administration energy research investments, mismanagement at DOE labs, mismanagement in NASA acquisitions and money management, and helped get the GOES satellite program back on the right track. He also held a ground-breaking investigative hearing into prosecutorial conduct in the Rocky Flats Lab prosecution, forcing the Federal prosecuting team to come to Congress and explain why they had settled the case the way they did and why FBI agents dropped active, promising lines of investigation.

I clearly recall my first encounter with Mr. Wolpe. It was at the first hearing I worked on putting together for the Science Committee, two months after I joined the Committee’s professional staff. The hearing was titled “Technologies and Strategies for Addressing Global Warming” (Hearing before the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, July 17, 1991, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992, ISBN 0-16-037352-2). The hearing led off with testimony from Michael Deland, Chairman of the first Bush Administration’s White House Council on Environmental Quality. Mr. Deland was followed by witnesses who testifed on three new studies of the global warming problem, issued by the National Academy of Sciences, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

Mr. Wolpe’s exchange with Mr. Deland, from the hearing transcript:

Mr. WOLPE: As you are aware, of course, the United States alone is responsible for 23 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, more than the entire European Community combined. According to the OTA [Office of Technology Assessment] study, even if we accept all of the very questionable assumptions under the [Bush Administration’s] National Energy Strategy, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States will increase 30 percent between now and the year 2015. Do you agree with that OTA statement, or do you disagree with that?

Mr. DELAND: I again can’t comment on the specifics, but, yes, there wil be an increase in CO2 emissions.

Mr. WOLPE: The EPA study states that to stabilize global climate change we must reduce today’s level of CO2 emissions by 50 to 80 percent, and most of the developed countries are also talking about actual reductions. You’re talking about an increase under the policies that are being proposed by the Administration. What is the United States going to do to reduce CO2 emissions? Could you spell that out in some specific way?

Mr. DELAND: …[T]he EPA study, … as you know, did not take into account costs or technological feasibility. It was merely a study focused on stabilization of CO2, and I think it needs to be presented in that context.

Yes the United States currently does produce 23 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, and clearly we need to move in a responsible fashion to wean ourselves from the fossil fuel dependency that we have in this country. I think we also, however, need to be aware that if the developing world develops as projected and as we would all like to see, that our contribution will diminish early in the next century into the single digits.

Now, what that says is not that we should be remiss in proceeding in this country, we need to move ever more aggressively, but we also need to focus our attention on the developing world. Global warming, to the degree that it’s a problem, will be solved in very large measure by how China uses that enormous coal pile upon which it sits, how India develops its energy resources, and we, I would submit, have a major responsibility to transfer technology to those countries to ensure that as they develop, they don’t replicate the same mistakes that we in this country have made.

Mr. WOLPE: Mr. Deland, with all respect, I don’t think that’s responsive to my question. I was asking what are we going to be doing? The NES projects a 31 to 38 percent increase in the use of coal b y the year 2030. You have indicated a moment ago, in response to an earlier question, that indeed under the National Energy Strategy, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States will increase some 30 percent between now and the year 2015.

Now I’m just asking, what is our — are you saying that’s going to be our policy, to accept that kind of increase, that we’re not going to be working to decrease the amount of CO2 emissions?

Mr. DELAND: I’m saying that we ever more diligently need to work to reduce CO2 emissions in this country. We need to focus on some of the issues that I’ve alluded to earlier, namely emphasis on alternative fuels, research into battery-powered cars, into mass transit, and the like. But I would also submit that that can’t happen overnight, that we grew up — that we are a fosssil fuel-dependent country, and as much as we would like to change that by the snap of a finger overnight, that that realistically isn’t going to happen.

As Mr. Scheuer said, each of us as individuals have a responsibility to change our habits. We can indeed individually and collectively make a difference, but I think we need to be realistic as to how fast we can achieve the results we’d all like to see.

Mr. WOLPE: Thank you.

The IPCC First Assessment Report had been released in 1990. On the basis of that scientific assessment, along with the reports by the Academy, EPA, and OTA that were laid out for the Committee, Mr. Wolpe was ready to roll on pushing the U.S. to make a commitment to absolute reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. He was ahead of the curve on that. Twenty years later the U.S. continues to fail to make such a commitment – causing the U.S. government increasingly to pose a danger to vulnerable populations around the world, not to mention the American public.

More striking, note that Mr. Deland, who represented the conservative position in this exchange, gave intelligent responses that acknowledged the reality of global warming, the need to work “ever more diligently” to reduce U.S. CO2 emissions, and the “major responsibility to transfer technology” to developing countries. Representing the Bush Administration. Twenty years ago. And I have watched with dismay as the anti-science and corporatist anti-regulation elements in Congress and U.S. politics have obstructed progress since then, while deliberately undermining  public discourse on the issues raised in that now-forgotten hearing.

I also note, in recalling his work on South Africa sanctions and aid to Africa, Mr. Wolpe’s willingness to go up against a popular president on a major issue without gaining any particular benefit for his own re-election; his ability to work on a bipartisan basis to craft legislation that could survive a Reagan veto; his progressive championing, because it was correct and important, of developing country aid in spite of typical disinterest among his mostly more conservative and parochial constitutents; and his willingness to court the opposition of the principal corporate interest in his district. How much of that kind of integrity and accountability to the public interest do we see today, in either party? Without it, how will the U.S. ever succeed in dealing with the challenge of global climatic disruption?

I last saw Mr. Wolpe in 1999 at the memorial service for my former Science Committee chair and legendary anti-war congressman George Brown, in the Capitol Building rotunda. I told him I missed him not still being a member of Congress. He told me he found it a relief to be able work on issues (e.g., he was a President Clinton envoy to Africa, and a university professor) without the distortions introduced to congressional life by the constant need for campaign fundraising from various interests. Amen to that. Another problem that has only gotten worse since the Hill lost Mr. Wolpe’s services.

Earlier posts:

Partisan climate science denialism reigns as U.S. House committee votes to repeal EPA Endangerment Finding and prohibit regulation of greenhouse gases

The U.S. Congress has entered the anti-science intellectual wilderness of willful ignorance, says the science journal Nature

Draft Republican bill would repeal EPA scientific “Endangerment Finding” on greenhouse gases and prohibit regulation


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2 Responses to R.I.P. Howard Wolpe

  1. Keith Laughlin says:

    Thank you for recalling Howard Wolpe’s work on national energy policy. While his policy approach always emphasized the environmental impact of our policies, it was equally grounded in economic analysis. In addition to his work on the Science Committee, this was also the basis of his long and successful fight against the Synthetic Fuels Corporation. He was outraged that we were spending billions of dollars trying to commercialize some of the dirtiest forms of fossil fuels while neglecting much more cost effective — and clean — investments in energy efficiency. He was so outraged that he was willing to directly challenge the pet project of a Speaker of the House of his own political party. And he ultimately succeeded, saving the American taxpayer $12 billion and preventing untold environmental damage. Sadly, I agree that this kind of courageous leadership is sadly lacking in today’s Congress.

  2. C. Alexander Brown says:

    A fitting legacy for this quietly Great American would be the reconstitution of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment — OTA, which had been killed off by newly elected Newt Gingrich and his ultra-conservative Zouaves, who believed that slash and burn reduction of government agencies, without any examination of value of function or merit of governance need be taken into account. Ironically, the USSR thought that the OTA was such a good idea, they copied it and built a clone in Moscow, and staffed it with top scientists, engineers and analysts. It still exists and is still functioning. Many leading American scientists have called for its restoration. That the White House has been deaf to these entreaties is not understandable.

    Though I am not an American, I have been quietly crusading for the restoration of this valuable analytical/research agency, created by the late Ted Kennedy to give impartial advice to Congress. My research has revealed that Gingrich (whose Ph.D. thesis was on the Apartheid government of Rhodesia) and his cohorts were in such a hurry to kill off the OTA that they did not do it legislatively. They simply cut off funding…!! So legally (or as lawyers and judges phrase it, de Jure), the Office of Technology Assessment — OTA — still exists. To revive it, all President Obama has to do is sign an authorization and provide some start up funding. That is all. Could someone ask the Congressional Budget Office to do a report on this? The matter is so straightforward it would take less than a month for a report to be prepared.

    I hope and believe that the spirit of Howard Wolpe and his calm non-partisan way of approaching politics in the Halls of Government and power will, in time, prevail again. And soon. History teaches us so. For America to progress, this is the mood that must exist. Political co-existence is the necessary bedrock on which the continuing Perfecting of the Nation must stand and be crafted.

    Rockcliffe Park, CANADA.

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