Today’s GOP Stomp On Reagan, Father Of Cap And Trade

Our guest blogger is Daniel J. Weiss, Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at American Progress.

Many Republican officials greatly admire the father of cap and trade: President Ronald Reagan. Yet opposition to “cap-and-trade” legislation to reduce global warming pollution is a common refrain among many Republican and a few Democratic officials this fall. The program is derided as a “cap and tax” that would drain voters’ wallets while bankrupting the nation. After the demise of comprehensive global warming legislation in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) gloated that “cap-and-trade, which is also known as the national energy tax, is dead in the United States Senate.”

Ironically enough, the three most recent Republican presidents promoted cap and trade, including Ronald Reagan. They employed such a system to phase out lead in gasoline, cut chlorofluorocarbons and other ozone-depleting chemicals, and reduce sulfur pollution from power plants responsible for acid rain — all without undue cost.

Former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) praised Reagan last year:

When you realize the magnitude of President Reagan’s achievements, there is absolutely no reason why anyone would ignore his ‘demonstrably good’ example.

Nonetheless, she and many of today’s public officials oppose a global warming plan that would employ the innovative cap-and-trade system first created by President Reagan, repudiating his legacy for cheap political gain and to curry favor with polluting industries.

The Reagan White House conceived the first cap-and-trade program to reduce pollution, used in the 1980s to phase out lead in gasoline at a lower cost. It was developed as a more flexible, market-based system to reduce environmental pollution compared to the so-called “command and control” model employed by environmental laws in the 1970s. The old system required each polluting facility to make a fixed reduction in air or water contamination, which ignored that some facilities could cut pollution more cheaply than others. An EPA analysis shows:

… estimated savings from the lead trading program of approximately 20 percent over alternative programs that did not provide for lead banking, a cost savings of about $250 million per year.

President Reagan also signed the Montreal Protocol in 1987 to slash the production and use of chemicals that deplete the upper ozone layer essential to screen out cancer-causing ultraviolet rays. His administration established a cap-and-trade system to implement the chemical reductions the protocol required. A 2006 scientific assessment concluded that “the Montreal Protocol is working” to reduce chemicals and protect the ozone layer.

President George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s successor, was the first president to propose the employment of a cap-and-trade system in an environmental law. The Clean Air Act of 1990 includes his proposed cap-and-trade system to reduce the sulfur pollution from power plants responsible for acid rain.

The Clean Air Act passed the Senate by a vote of 89-10 and the House by 401-25. Many staunch conservatives voted for it including Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo), Trent Lott (R-MS), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Strom Thurmond (R-SC). Conservative House supporters included Reps. Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Joe Barton (R-TX), Dennis Hastert (R-IL), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), and Fred Upton (R-MI).

When President Bush signed the Clean Air Act into law he highlighted its innovative cap-and-trade mechanism:

The acid rain allowance trading program will be the first large-scale regulatory use of market incentives and is already being seen as a model for regulatory reform efforts here and abroad.

“To reject this legacy and embrace the failed 1970s policies of one-size-fits-all regulatory mandates would signify unilateral surrender of principled support for markets,” write economists Richard Schmalensee, who worked in the Reagan White House, and Robert Stavins. “If some conservatives oppose energy or climate policies because of disagreement about the threat of climate change or the costs of those policies, so be it. But in the process of debating risks and costs, there should be no tarnishing of market-based policy instruments. Such a scorched-earth approach will come back to haunt when future environmental policies will not be able to use the power of the marketplace to reduce business costs.”

Schmalensee and Stavins’s warning should be heeded: This current crop of Republican and a few Democratic officials—in their zeal to curry favor with their special interest funders and Tea Party activists—could doom future efforts to follow the path paved by Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Bush to reduce pollution in the most cost-effective way possible.

Read the extended version of this post at American Progress.