WASHINGTON—Predictions that Republicans could dethrone Democrats as the majority party in one or both chambers of Congress after the midterm election have caused considerable angst in much of the environmental community.
But would a Republican-led House or Senate really stymie or snuff out efforts at energy and environmental legislation when balanced out with a Democratic president?
Nonpartisan observers who eat, sleep and breathe Capitol Hill’s environmental policy say they have no doubt that the 112th Congress will be reshaped with additional Republicans. But when leaders convene in January 2011, they would be foolish, shortsighted and irresponsible not to make climate and energy bills priorities because forward-thinking legislation could significantly bolster a teetering economy.
“The Republican Party is much more interested in clean energy, a long-term energy policy and fighting climate change than the politics of this polarized moment indicate,” Paul Bledsoe told SolveClimate News in an interview. “The notion that one party owns these issues is devastating for potential legislative and policy accomplishments.”
Bledsoe is now a strategist with the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Commission of Energy Policy. He has served in senior positions with Congress and the executive branch, including a1998 to 2000 stint as communications director of the White House Climate Change Task Force.
“Not to be naïve about the obstacles to developing effective energy and environment legislation,” he continued. “But I don’t think the notion that all bets are off because of a Republican majority is anywhere near correct.”
Looking Beyond Cap and Trade
When one party has a supermajority, Bledsoe pointed out, those in charge tend to write legislation without consulting the minority. That can make it virtually impossible to “sell” complex and significant mechanisms such as cap and trade—which now appears to be dead on arrival.
Even Republicans who once supported cap and trade approach as valid now dismiss it as an unacceptable tax.
“Traditionally, energy is not a partisan but a geographically focused issue,” Bledsoe said, adding that the 2005 and 2007 energy bills passed with bipartisan support, the former in a Republican Senate and the latter in a Democratic Senate.
Some political prognosticators say this year’s anti-establishment backlash could give the Republicans the 39 seats they need to take control of the House and the 10 seats they need to reclaim the Senate. But that could present an opportunity instead of a threat, Bledsoe emphasized.
“A strange dynamic can develop when the balance of power is narrower,” he said, adding that polarization along party lines can dissipate. “I think senators will feel a greater sense of urgency to initiate legislation together. I see senators of goodwill coming together to create bipartisan approaches.”
Ignore Those Two-, Four-, Six-Year Election Cycles
Josh Freed is the director of the clean energy program for Third Way, a moderate think tank of the progressive movement. His line of reasoning is that the United States needs a clean technology revolution to shake it out of its post-recession funk and give it an edge in the global economy.
Some sort of climate and energy legislation will eventually emerge but first, the public and private sectors need to cooperate to invent, demonstrate, deploy and market the green batteries, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, advanced nuclear power, renewables and other technologies that are actually competitive with fossil fuels.
“As a country, we seem to have lost our way on that model,” Freed said, adding that it propelled the success of the airline industry, the Internet and the biotechnology sector. “How do we go about turning that around?”
Congress needs to champion this push with thoughtful, comprehensive and bipartisan legislation, Freed explained, but the American public, business leaders, universities, entrepreneurs, large companies and the financial sector have to act in tandem.
His lament is that the nation’s capital can be a black hole for innovation because the modus operandi for so many players is to squeeze complicated topics into congressional or presidential election cycles.
“This is going to take longer than a campaign. It’s much like the health care debate in 1993,” Freed said, adding that the need for reform was obvious but the mechanism being deployed all those years ago collapsed under its own weight. “It took 17 years to rebuild that coalition. With energy, we don’t have the time to wait 17 years but we need to learn those lessons.”
Politicians and everybody else involved have to realize that America is playing catch-up because its dawdling has ceded much of the clean technology market to China, South Korea, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany.
“This has to be an issue that resonates in Minnesota, Tennessee and Ohio as much as it does in Oregon, Washington and Connecticut,” Freed said.
He complimented Obama for having the foresight to lay the groundwork for a clean technology economy with a three-part start: investing billions in stimulus dollars, supplying loan guarantees for nuclear energy and boosting fuel economy standards for vehicles.
No More Party of “No”
As vice president for policy and communications with the Michigan-based nonprofit Republicans for Environmental Protection, Jim DiPeso definitely has multiple dogs in this congressional fight.
However, he agrees with Freed and Bledsoe that leaders such as Ohio’s John Boehner in the House and Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell in the Senate know they can’t ignore the twin behemoths of climate and energy. They are well versed about the national security risks and aware the country is losing clean energy jobs to overseas competitors.
“If you corner either of them in a dark room, they know they have to deliver a product on many issues, and energy is one of them,” DiPeso said from his office in Washington state. “They can’t continue with business as usual. They need to show that Republicans can solve problems, not just keep saying that Democrats can’t solve problems.
“They also know the voters have no allegiance. They can turn on the Republicans as quickly as they are on the Democrats now.”
His fear is that rational voices will be drowned out if entrenched politicians such as Boehner and McConnell allow firebrands—legislators backed by the “tea party”—to take control of the agenda next year.
“All bets are off because those newcomers will have different ideas about what priorities should be tackled,” he noted. “Then, you’re looking at gridlock.”
His wish is that President Obama, Boehner and McConnell will be “smart” enough to mollify dissenters and follow President Clinton’s lead of the mid-1990s by collaborating on a centrist agenda.
“It’s hard to say what that could mean for climate but whatever is presented would have to be very simple, not a 1400-page magnum opus,” he said, referencing the enormously intricate American Clean Energy and Security Act that passed the House in 2009. “Any tax increase is unacceptable so it will have to be framed as a user fee. You need a price on carbon but the money from the polluters has to go back to the people. It can’t grow the size of government.”
DiPeso’s hope is that the Senate will take the lead on bipartisan climate legislation this time around. An ideal scenario, he said, would find Republican senators such as Richard Lugar of Indiana, Bob Corker or Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, or Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe of Maine courting Democratic co-sponsors such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana or Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
The Senate has an institutional culture where politicians can work across party lines without getting mixed up in the thicket of briar patches that trip up the House, he said.
“I don’t see a credible scenario where a Republican majority would ignore energy,” DiPeso concluded. “And common sense tells me it has to be a bipartisan bill. Of course,” he added with a laugh, “common sense and Washington, D.C. can be mutually exclusive.”
He and Bledsoe echo one another with their comments about why partisan bickering and backing on the climate front can be so detrimental.
“It’s a huge mistake for climate activists to become partisan,” Bledsoe emphasized. “Instead, it’s incumbent on the environmental community, the Obama administration and scientists to reach out to politicians on these energy and environment issues.
“You can blame both sides for the polarization but it doesn’t matter who is to blame. We need to fix it and that’s the only way forward.”