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Q: Does a cap & trade bill have to be bipartisan?

By Joe Romm on October 27, 2008 at 11:50 am

"Q: Does a cap & trade bill have to be bipartisan?"

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A: I’m gonna answer this important and complicated question “no” for four reasons:

  1. Against all evidence, conservative Republicans have simply refused to budge on the climate issue (see “The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP“). They would rather destroy the climate than support government-led clean energy solutions. I don’t see that changing for at least several years.
  2. Moderate Republicans are a vanishing breed — and this election is likely to boot at least half of the remaining ones out of Congress.
  3. The most important thing is to get as strong a climate bill as is possible in 2009. The Dems are going to have to compromise just to satisfy their own moderates (see “Moderate Senate Dems build ‘Gang of 16″² to influence cap-and-trade bill“). Weakening the bill further to get more than a few token Republicans would gut the whole effort.
  4. China either embraces serious action sometime relatively soon after we do or they don’t. If they do, then gutting the bill sometime after that would be far less likely. If they don’t, then it is inconceivable the political will to endure strong domestic climate action will last very far into the implementation phase (i.e. very far into the phase when carbon prices and/or regulations start to bite). Thus, we need to maximize the likelihood that China embraces serious action and that again means we need to make our bill as strong and credible as possible.

But wait, you say. If the bill isn’t bipartisan, won’t the Republicans just gut it once they assume power? That is typically a key political calculation: How much do you gut a bill now to avoid having it gutted in the future? But climate change isn’t like other legislation in part because other key countries either respond to us or they don’t (as noted) and because the climate keeps getting worse and worse.

Undoing or weakening a climate bill couldn’t happen until and unless Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House. If we are going to make super optimistic assumptions whereby Obama wins and gets reelected — and if we aren’t going to make super-optimistic assumptions then we aren’t going to avoid catastrophic global warming ’cause, like, the deck is heavily stacked against us and we’ll need runner runner to make a winning hand — then the earliest that could happen is 2017.

While conservative deniers/inactivists may think nothing much is going to change over the next eight years, in fact, by 2017, it is highly likely that all hell will be breaking loose — literally. Indeed, recent studies in Nature and Science suggest we are probably going to get quite hot quite fast early in the 2010s, and the coming decade is poised to see faster temperature rise than any decade in recorded history (see “Climate Forecast: Hot — and then Very Hot” and “Nature article on ‘cooling’ confuses media, deniers: Next decade may see rapid warming“).

Thus, most likely, future presidents and future congresses will be strengthening any climate bill, much as the nations of the world progressively tightened the restrictions on ozone-depleting substances as more and more countries joined the effort and as the dire nature of the problem became clearer and clearer (see “Lest We Forget Montreal“).

The other wildcard, assuming again that Obama were to win, is that, on the one hand, he is running as a different kind of politician, one who reaches across the aisle to solve major problems facing the nation. But, on the other hand, Obama is running on a strong and comprehensive energy and climate plan (see “Obama’s excellent energy and climate plan“) — a plan that one can hardly imagine more than a tiny number of Republicans embracing (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us“).

E&E Daily has a long article today, “Possible Democratic sweep raises stakes for ’09 cap-and-trade debate” (subs. req’d), which makes many points germane to this issue, and I will excerpt it here:

Projected Democratic victories in next week’s election have proponents of a stronger U.S. global warming policy excited about their best chance yet for passing an aggressive cap-and-trade bill.

But there is also deep unease within some ranks that this new political dynamic won’t result in a bipartisan deal that stands the test of time.

With Democratic majorities likely to grow on both ends of Capitol Hill, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) leading Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the race for the White House, one of the biggest questions ahead for Democrats is whether they can work with each other on climate legislation.

Several environmentalists maintain that Democrats can craft a strong greenhouse gas emission reduction package among their own rancorous ranks and then challenge Republicans to come along or face consequences at the polls later.

“They can write the bill that they want,” said Joseph Romm, a former Energy Department official from the Clinton administration and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “They may need to get a couple of Republicans. And I’m not saying all the Democrats want the same thing Obama wants. Obviously they don’t. But I think we’re more likely to end up with a stronger piece of climate legislation if Obama wins.”

David Hamilton, climate campaign director at the Sierra Club, insists that the Democrats will be in position to test GOP lawmakers on climate, especially if they are within sight of the 60-vote margin to regularly defeat a Senate filibuster.

“I think with an Obama administration and a much stronger Democratic Senate, I think you get more Republican votes,” Hamilton said. “Their rigid attempts to try to force the Democrats and show them as a ‘do nothing Congress’ won’t be credible. They’ll actually have to vote on stuff.”

Still other close observers to the climate debate fret that Obama and a Democrat-controled House and Senate could be in for a difficult fight, especially if Republicans close ranks in opposition to any major environmental package offered while the U.S. and global economy continue to slide downward.

“There’s a danger of overreaching,” said Tony Kreindler, spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund. “There’s a danger of making it impossible for there to be a bipartisan deal. There’s certainly the possibility of regional energy politics that never goes away, even if you have 60. Sixty only matters if you have 60 who think alike. We’re simply not going to have that.”

Even with big margins, some wonder if Democrats would really try to deliver on a climate bill that deals with the vast scope of the global warming problem, including deep emission cuts that line up with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scientific recommendations….

Mark Menezes, a former Republican aide on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Democrats can learn from his party’s mistakes, which came into view between 2002 to 2006 when they held the White House and majorities on both sides of the Hill. Democrats were often shut out of negotiations, and it left Republican leaders struggling to make deals with themselves.

“What happened at that point was too much of trying to work together,” he said. “Everybody thought this was their chance to get everything they wanted. We had the hardest time in the world because it was not the typical opposition you expected to encounter.”

If Democrats find themselves in the same situation, Menezes predicted gridlock when it comes to something as complicated as global warming.

“I’d hate to be a staffer tasked with trying to make the House leadership happy, the Senate leadership happy and the Obama administration happy on a climate bill without the Republicans giving me something to explain why I am making concessions,” Menezes said. “It’s the first question you’ll get. It just puts everyone in a position where you’re not inclined to compromise.”

David Jenkins, government affairs director at the Republicans for Environmental Protection, supports McCain’s presidential bid and insists that his candidate would be better positioned to broker a bipartisan deal. But if Obama wins, he warned Democrats that it would be foolish to move a bill without collecting GOP support from the start.

“It does us no good to put a climate bill in place that is going to start us on this great road to reduce carbon emissions if the next time we have a big shift in power, they undo everything,” Jenkins said. “It has to be seen as something that’s bipartisan. It needs to have bipartisan buy in.”

Obama and McCain: Climate partners?

Yet another obstacle for Democrats may be one of their own making.

If the pre-election polls prove true, there may be fewer moderate Republicans around come 2009 to work on a climate bill. Incumbent Republicans in close re-election races include Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and Gordon Smith of Oregon.

All are potential swing votes on the climate issue.

Democrats maintain that no matter the makeup of Congress, Obama has the skills to reach out to the GOP. But who would he work with on global warming?

Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar is a possibility given his earlier working relationships on weapons issues with Obama, as well as Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden, the current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lugar is the ranking member under Biden.

Obama also could turn to several other senators who have spoken of an interest to move climate legislation, including Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the likely ranking member next year on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

No doubt the most intriguing pairing on climate in 2009 would involve McCain, a long-standing cosponsor of cap-and-trade legislation with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Almost two years ago, Obama signed up as a cosponsor to the latest version of the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade bill.

Among House Republicans, Obama may have a limited pool to pick from. Few have stood up in support of a climate bill in the past. Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin is one exception. Another congressman to watch is Fred Upton of Michigan, the ranking member of the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee. Upton held back on the cap-and-trade debate this year in deference to House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Joe Barton (R-Texas), who disputes the science linking humans to global warming.

Among Democrats, the critical test for Obama and congressional leaders will be dealing with their own party’s concerns. A new Senate “Gang of 16″ has been working on some of the complex details associated with cap-and-trade legislation since early this year, including Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)….

William Kovacs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president of environment and regulatory affairs, wonders how Democratic leaders will address concerns from within the party, such as House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.), two powerful lawmakers who unveiled a draft cap-and-trade bill earlier this month that tries to space out the emission cuts so they line up with deployment projections for several major new energy technologies.

“What happens to moderates like Dingell and Boucher?” Kovacs said. “They’ve put forth a bill, I’m not saying we support it, we’re still studying it. But it is reasonable. [Dingell and Boucher] sit there and say how do you integrate the development of technologies with the reductions.”

Asked about working with the GOP next year, Boucher said he will leave the door open for further negotiations. But they won’t have long to come in. “The blunt reality I think is the Republican opportunity to influence the measure and exert real leverage to achieve their goals was at its pinnacle in this Congress,” he said.

With stronger Democratic majorities, Boucher added, “There will be less of that opportunity in the next Congress.”

Don’t forget about the economy

On the campaign trail, advisers to both Obama and McCain say that cap-and-trade legislation will remain a top priority if elected despite the increasingly gloomy economic outlook. Obama aides say their global warming measures can create jobs and stimulate the economy.

But several longtime climate opponents counter that the nation’s economic situation will recast the priorities of the next administration.

“I don’t see how either makes it a top priority with the economy and the war,” said Andrew Wheeler, staff director for Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “I think it necessarily takes a back seat at least for a year.”

Both Obama and McCain should expect industry challenges from industry. But the Chamber’s Kovacs said he has greater concerns about Obama after a recent Bloomberg story quoting one of the campaign’s top energy advisers saying they planned to use U.S. EPA to go after emission reductions.

“I say pox on both of their houses,” Kovacs said. “Obama is a nonstarter to the business community because we literally have EPA regulating the entire economy. At least with the McCain plan, at least we’re going to get some energy in there because at least they’re thinking of nuclear and he recognizes you have to drill in the [outer continental shelf].”

Obama campaign officials say the Bloomberg story was an inaccurate portrayal of their position, explaining that either presidential candidate would be obliged to implement the Supreme Court’s April 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA.

“Senator Obama believes that comprehensive congressional action is far superior to a regulatory approach and will work aggressively with Congress to pass legislation,” said Heather Zichal, Obama’s top energy and environmental adviser at the campaign’s Chicago headquarters. “If Congress is unable to act in a timely manner, any responsible president would want to have the regulatory process under way to reduce emissions and comply with the law….”

Romm said he does not buy the argument that McCain would be better suited to build a bipartisan climate package, or even to make the issue a priority. McCain may have been an early proponent of cap-and-trade legislation, but those bills never came close to 60 votes in the Senate. In fact, McCain lost five supporters between 2003 and 2005 because he insisted on subsidies for new nuclear plants. That position is now a focal point of McCain’s presidential campaign.

“I have extreme doubts that the bill McCain wants would pass muster,” Romm said. He also questioned McCain’s commitment after picking Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), a skeptic on climate science, for the vice presidential nomination….

Needless to say, much of the answer to this question depends on the outcome of November 4th, so I will return to this issue after the election.

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4 Responses to Q: Does a cap & trade bill have to be bipartisan?

  1. hapa says:

    USA manufacturing is slowing to a crawl. steel orders nearly half. no improvement foreseeable in coming year or two, or longer. this is our best chance to retool and then deploy in power and transportation sectors — no production bottleneck, no labor bottleneck — and also a great opportunity to shift to green building through aggressive training and code adjustment, while that sector is “resting.”

    the federal credit line is the only one that can do it. but what will we get? a multi-year fight to pass a plan that kicks in ten years from now? no real peak oil adaptation? ongoing economic advice from people who think derivatives are the economic engine of the world? “enhancing future growth”?

    this is what it means, to “get it” or not. can you seize a big chance? or are you constrained by certainty that other systems — even as they fail utterly on their own terms — must be maintained first, before the biophysical.

  2. Not if we get to 60. Even 58, (because their Collins and Snowe will vote with us.)

    Can’t legislation be written to be long term, so it cannot be gutted when they take over again? Can we learn from the ways the Republicans rolled everything back how to not let it happen again?

    How about
    1. Make every American a stakeholder in a green economy with dividends: electranet with feed in tariffs.
    2. Use legislation to force the spread of green industry and jobs to the red states?

  3. David B. Benson says:

    Susan Kraemer — Green and red? What a terrible color combination. :-)

  4. heh.

    Actually, I usually think of them as the green states versus the brown states (brown: oil industry) but since those states (with the resource curse) are also red states, I mixed the metaphor…