“People in Washington talk about going from Capitol Hill to Georgetown for lunch,” says Candice Miller, a Republican congresswoman whose Michigan district spans the shores of Lake Huron and borders Canada. “Well, I don’t think twice about going from my home to Windsor or Sarnia for lunch.”
As conservative Republicans this month take control of the House of Representatives, a chamber that has often been the source of cross-border irritants, the Canadian government is gaining a few powerful friends. Miller, whose district includes the second-busiest border crossing and its most trafficked rail crossing, will be the new lead lawmaker on border issues. The new chairman of the powerful House homeland security committee, congressman Peter King, a blustery security hawk who in the past has voiced concerns about Canadian immigration policies, could have been a source of trouble on border issues. But he told Maclean’s in an interview that he wants to have a “good working relationship” with Canada. “The tone is going to be very friendly and co-operative,” said King. To that end, he appointed Miller to chair the subcommittee on border and maritime security. “Candice Miller is from Michigan, so we are going to focus on northern border security not in an adversarial way,” said King.
In the security-obsessed American capital, where the word border usually conjures images of Mexican drug cartels and undocumented immigrants—or worse—sneaking across the border, Miller brings a different perspective. “I always remind everyone in Washington that Canada is our busiest and most active trading partner—not just my state’s biggest trading partner, but our nation’s,” Miller told Maclean’s. “I am very sensitive to the ‘thickening of the border’ issue and I have tried to work toward securing the border as well as making sure we are very aware of expediting commerce.”
While Canadian diplomats expend much time and energy after each election cycle in the United States trying to explain to incoming lawmakers that Canada is America’s largest trading partner and biggest supplier of energy, Miller will bring first-hand experience with the land border when she takes over the gavel. “I am hopeful that Canadians will see my position on the subcommittee as a person who understands the issues and I hope to work with them as closely as I possibly can,” she said.
Miller, who met Stephen Harper during his visit to Capitol Hill in 2009, has recently joined the Canada United States Inter-parliamentary Group, an association of lawmakers from both countries. She says she is keen to work with Canadian lawmakers. “As I develop my own agenda, I will be using some of the contacts I have made through that, with my Canadian counterparts, members of Parliament and senators, in trying to get some ideas from them on challenges they see.” In addition, she said she is considering holding hearings in border communities on both sides of the boundary. “Cross-border communication is going to be very important on my subcommittee,” she said. “I’ve got some ideas in mind, how we improve communications, how we don’t make decisions in the U.S. in a vacuum without having discussed them with appropriate officials in Canada.”
One Canadian who has already had significant interaction with her is Patricia Davidson, Tory MP for Sarnia-Lambton, whose constituency is across the Blue Water Bridge from Miller’s and who has met with the congresswoman for regular meetings over the past five years. “I have nothing but good things to say about Candice Miller. I think she does a fantastic job. She represents her constituency well in part by working co-operatively with others,” said Davidson in an interview. “In our discussions she has always shown a great interest in making sure that commerce flows.” Davidson described Miller as, “a very straightforward and honest person to deal with.”
Another Michigan Republican who promises to be friendly to the Harper government’s agenda is Fred Upton, the new chairman of the House energy and commerce committee. “Fred is a strong supporter of Canadian oil sands and working closely with our neighbours to the north,” said his spokesman, Sean Bonyun. Upton replaces Henry Waxman, the California Democrat whose district included Hollywood, and who made oil sands—or, as he pejoratively called the resource, “tar sands”—a personal target. Waxman had co-authored comprehensive climate change legislation passed by the House (it didn’t get through the Senate) and had tried to limit U.S. imports of oil sands production. Most recently, he opposed the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta through the Midwest and into Texas, which would roughly double the quantity of oil-sands exports to the United States. The pipeline project is being reviewed by the U.S. State Department, which has to issue a permit for it to proceed.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this summer, Waxman called it “a multi-billion-dollar investment to expand our reliance on the dirtiest source of transportation fuel currently available.” In contrast, Upton, the new committee chairman, wrote to Clinton in November blasting the State Department for taking too long to approve the pipeline. He urged Clinton to approve the permit application “as soon as possible,” and chastised government for “standing in the way” of a project that he said would stimulate $20 billion in new spending in the U.S. economy and spur the creation of 118,000 jobs. Echoing arguments frequently made by Canadian diplomats in Washington, Upton argued that the pipeline would help displace oil from regimes that are hostile to the United States, replacing approximately 50 per cent of the oil that the U.S. currently imports from Venezuela or the Middle East. “Canada is our ally and neighbour, so shifting our imports from hostile regimes to a friendly one is a no-brainer,” wrote Upton, whose district is home to a refinery that relies on oil-sands production.
Alberta’s envoy to Washington, Gary Mar, welcomed Upton’s comments. “I think that’s a very good message, and one that we’ve been working on both sides of the House for the last three years,” said Mar.
Environmentalists are less enthusiastic. “The ascent of leaders like Fred Upton makes it more likely that federal agencies will receive pressure to approve the pipeline and cease asking tough questions about the pipeline’s environmental impacts and need,” said Danielle Droitsch, director of U.S. policy for the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental think tank. But she notes that the House is only one chamber of Congress. “Waxman’s party is still in control of the Senate, and so Democrats have not lost their ability to influence” the debate over the environmental trade-offs of increasing oil-sands production.
But in the GOP-controlled House, at least, environmentalists face an uphill battle. One of Upton’s first acts as chairman was to install Illinois Republican John Shimkus as chair of the subcommittee on the environment. Shimkus has said there is no need for governments to try to stop climate change because the Bible’s Book of Genesis says that after the great flood, God promised Noah that he would never again destroy the world with rising waters.
Despite the new leadership’s downsizing of environmental concerns about Canadian oil sands, Alberta’s Mar said, “We still have much to do.” Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency is working on carbon regulations—which Upton and Shimkus want to block—and various states are considering their own “low-carbon fuel standards” that could exclude oil sands production from use. “Our job is far from over,” said Mar. But it just got a lot easier.