House Climate Bill a Centrist Balancing Act

tightrope balancing act

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"The way it works around here is that you never get everything you want all at once," Phil Clapp once instructed me about the way things work in Washington. "You take as big a bite of the apple as you can, and you keep going back over and over. Solving global warming is going to take a generation or more of work."

It’s the wise counsel needed for the present moment as the nation gets a first look at what its long-awaited climate law is likely going to look like. U.S. Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey today released a discussion draft of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 – a 648-page proposal that provides the blueprint from Democratic lawmakers.

Judging from the short summary that was issued with the bill and from selective dives into its detailed provisions, the bill attempts to execute a powerful long jump while carrying a sack of potatoes.

It’s an apt metaphor for the hope and reality of American legislative democracy. The Act is a tremendous leap toward a clean energy future. It calls for renewable energy, modernization of the electrical grid, more electric vehicles and big increases in the efficiency of appliances and buildings. It gets bogged down by the political need to drag behind it a dirty fossil past using various compromises and concessions. It is a brilliantly centrist bill that moves forward while pulling in opposite directions – designed out-of-the-gate to attract the needed votes of heartland lawmakers. That’s why the Right wants it destroyed and the Left wants it strengthened.

What illustrates this most poignantly is perhaps the most surprising inclusion, and to many among the most disappointing – a provision to strip EPA of authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

Both Markey and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended the need for the provision, saying their intention is to pass legislation, not to punt the issue to regulators. Members of Congress believe it is their responsibility to answer for the nation what should be done about greenhouses gases, and also to send a clear signal to other countries about what the law of the land is.

Less than two weeks ago, Sen. Barbara Boxer played the EPA card to much better effect when she sent a signal to her colleagues through a press conference by saying:

A lot of my colleagues seem to feel that if we don’t act on [climate] legislation then nothing is going to happen. If Congress does nothing, we’ll be watching EPA do our job.

Indeed, the EPA has been moving swiftly to issue an endangerment finding on CO2 in response to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, so Boxer’s words had teeth. Not only that, the agency’s swift and aggressive action on mountaintop removal mining, auto emission standards and coal plant permits has earned high marks for Lisa Jackson, the administrator, from those concerned about climate change.

While the proposed bill does reserve a role for EPA on greenhouse gases, it would be a tangential one and would effectively blunt a powerful tool now in the hands of a president who means business.

Pre-empting the EPA is, perhaps, the biggest carrot in the bill to opponents, who, unmollified, are out in force already complaining about Democratic plans to levy the biggest tax in the history of the universe. The centrist offer here seems to be this: Pass the bill and you get to stop Lisa Jackson; kill the bill and the EPA goes nuts. That may be the political calculus here, but you wonder, why didn’t the sponsors keep this trump card in their back pocket? That’s just a waste of a big bite of the apple everyone can currently taste.

It should have been the reward to opponents for a good bill, not a concession out of the gate. It already even may weaken EPA. If the bill fails, Congressional Democrats have laid down a marker that the agency’s wings will someday be clipped, even though the best action for climate change we’ve ever seen has come since January 20th from the very agency that was created to protect the environment. You’d think Congress would want to maintain the power of an agency like that, but instead, they threw it into the potato sack, made it more dead weight. 

We’ll have a better answer by Memorial Day about whether the act will get us the reductions science says we need, fast enough, when the bill emerges from committee after public hearings and private back-room negotiations. We’ll then see the deal America has struck with itself and its future, and have a better idea if it will survive a full House vote, get through the Senate and reach the President’s desk this year.

Pelosi vowed it will. "We are going to shorten the distance between ‘inconceivable’ and ‘inevitable’ to no longer than six months," she said this morning on a conference call, throwing her full weight behind getting climate legislation done this year.

On the same call, Markey said the nation is "at the beginning of an incredibly intense period of debate," and that he was aiming to make sure that the U.S. delegation can go to UN climate talks in December in Copenhagen as "the leader, not the laggard."

It’s worth taking note of a peculiar bolus of stories that appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, all at once. There was the much-remarked magazine cover story on Freeman Dyson – an Obama-loving climate skeptic who thinks James Hansen is exaggerating climate dangers; another story by Andrew Revkin, looking at the debate among scientists over the proximity and likelihood of "tipping points;" and another story by Matthew Wald that warned clean energy was going to cost us. It was a much-amplified centrist presentation of the climate issue that – at the expense of James Hansen – seemed to say, "well, maybe the climate science is not as dire as we thought," and "given the state of the economy, let’s be careful about not making energy too clean and too expensive."

A coincidence as far as anyone knows, most certainly, but certainly worth our awareness of what was in the air as a media table-setter for today’s discussion draft of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. A summary of the draft is available on the web site of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, chaired by Waxman; and a good discussion of the bill is on Climate Progress, where Joe Romm gives it a B+.

There’s much to applaud. The bill includes a nationwide renewable electricity standard of 25% by 2025, which will require growing amounts of power from wind, solar and geothermal. That’s huge, even if utilities will be allowed to meet a fifth of this total with energy efficiency measures. There is also a big chunk of support for energy efficiency measures to lower energy bills for most Americans. Between these two points of focus, the result will be millions of new jobs. The bill also sets near, medium and long-term targets for emissions reductions, ending at about 80% below 2005 levels by 2050 – and establishes a carbon cap and trade system to help things along. The sponsors avoided the question of how to allocate the carbon credits that the system will require. 

That was a wise decision. A cap and trade system will in essence create a new carbon currency worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Some lawmakers want to hand most of it over to polluting industries; others want to return most of it to citizens to protect pocketbooks from rising energy prices, and to plow it into financing the clean energy future. It is perhaps the thorniest question the political system will have to resolve. It is under the heavy pressure of industry lobbyists lining up four-deep at the trough, who will not be satisfied by the whopping 2 billion tons of carbon offsets they’ve already been handed by the bill. If that provision survives, it will inject sufficient air under the cap to make it almost meaningless – at least for a decade or two.

Which means we’ll have green jobs – lots of them; an economy in revival; savings on energy expenditures; and energy security and independence.

And global warming.