This week, Senate Democrats unveiled an energy bill that would attempt to move America to a low-carbon future. But if the bill has zero chance of being passed in a chamber controlled by Republicans, does it matter?
“Today’s announcement should send a clear signal that it is a top priority for Senate Democrats to invest in our nation’s energy future and address climate change before it’s too late,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) at a Tuesday press conference. The legislation “is a technology driven pathway to a clean energy future,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) who sponsored the bill, dubbed the “American Energy Innovation Act of 2015.”
Though it would not set a price on carbon emissions, like the failed cap-and-trade bill from five years ago, her bill does contain many provisions intended to accelerate the shift to a low-carbon economy, and sets a more ambitious carbon target than the White House.
It would implement a “carbon savings goal” making it the policy of the United States “to use appropriate authorities and available technologies to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the United States by not less than 2 percent per year on average through 2025.” It would repeal some fossil fuel subsidies and invest in clean energy technology through tax incentives and grant programs. It would, as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) explained at the press conference, provide incentives, but no penalties. It would boost community solar projects and access to solar energy for low-income families. It would help the grid and manufacturers modernize their infrastructure, making it cheaper and more efficient. It would “create a federal Energy Efficiency Resource Standard, which would save consumers $150 billion over the next 15 years, and support research and development on smart buildings.”
“This bill would tap America’s abundant clean energy potential to significantly reduce climate pollution while saving people money,” said Elizabeth Thompson, president of EDFAction in a statement.
But it’s not going anywhere. With the increasingly likely possibility the the government will be unable to keep the lights on due to congressional conservatives’ opposition to funding women’s health centers, the prospect of the Senate Democrats even getting a climate bill out of committee is dire.
In fact, there is no guarantee that the bipartisan but Republican-led energy bill that does not directly deal with climate change or renewable energy will see a floor vote either. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was able to get it passed out of her energy committee with a vote of 18-4. The Senate has not passed a comprehensive energy bill in eight years.
So why bother? Legislation like Cantwell’s climate-focused energy bill provides a chance for the minority party to set a national policy to highlight their priorities, operating somewhat like a shadow government does in a parliamentary system. If the Senate Democrats still held their majority, this is the sort of bill they would try to get passed. However, because of the rules of the Senate, history shows that even with a strong majority it is difficult to get a major piece of legislation passed.
“At a time when the majority in Congress is seemingly at the beck and call of the fossil fuel industry, legislation like this … lays out clear clean energy priorities, offering a blueprint for the kind of energy policy that actually represents what the American public actually wants and reflects the direction the market and the nation are actually going,” Sierra Club legislative director, Melinda Pierce, told ThinkProgress. Pierce said that it would not be surprising to see some parts of the bill adapted into other bills that would have a better chance of passage.
Other environmental advocates were less impressed with the scope of the bill.
“Marker bills serve as an opportunity to put forth a positive vision for how our country can move to a better future built on decentralized renewable energy,” Ben Schreiber, climate and energy program director at Friends of the Earth told ThinkProgress. “What makes today’s bill so disappointing is its lack of ambition.”
“With Democrats in the minority in both chambers of Congress there is often so much time spent defeating horrible legislation that there isn’t time to put forth a proactive vision,” Schreiber told ThinkProgress. Schreiber said that although it would make strides on climate change, “unfortunately, it is not an articulation of what is actually necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change or how we can achieve that reality.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said that a bill like this “is the kind of thing I’d embrace,” which is important because he is seen as the likely leader of the Senate Democrats after Reid retires after 2016. “A plan that looks something like this is going to be high on the next Congress’s agenda.”
With current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) threatening to undermine President Obama’s climate measures on the domestic and global stage, the minority party sought to make clear what legislation they would advocate should they win back a majority next year.
“Wouldn’t it be refreshing in the United States Senate if we announced in the next two weeks we’re going to debate the energy policy of the United States?” asked Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) at the press conference. “That would be a breath of fresh air, wouldn’t it? Instead, what do we do? Last week we had five straight repeat votes on the Iran agreement. This week we are giving seriatim Republican presidential candidates a chance to get into the top ten by offering an amendment on the floor … that just might lead to a shutdown of the government. And people look at Washington and say, ‘I just don’t get it.'”