What A Republican-Controlled Senate Would Mean For The Climate

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), NSA defender, is in a bit of a quandary and may have to endorse legislation limiting the agency’s reach. CREDIT: AP PHOTO / J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), NSA defender, is in a bit of a quandary and may have to endorse legislation limiting the agency’s reach. CREDIT: AP PHOTO / J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE

The midterm elections are now just days away. And according to the New York Times’ forecasts, the Republicans have a 68 percent chance of taking back the Senate.

So just what would this mean for climate, energy, and environmental policy? Broadly speaking, a Senate switch to the GOP wouldn’t shift the balance of power in the government that much. But it would give right-wing politicians who oppose environmental laws and question the reality of climate change more leverage points to stymie and undercut various efforts. And it does open the possibility that Republicans could ram through substantive policy changes if they can maneuver President Obama into another “grand bargain.”

First off, the lay of the land: if the GOP does take control of the Senate, it would only do so by a slim margin, leaving the Democrats far more than the 41 votes they need to successfully filibuster any new laws or policy changes. And while there are certainly some Democrats in the Senate who are conflicted on the issue — expressing doubt of or opposition to the new federal rule cutting carbon emissions from power plants, for example — there aren’t enough of them with strong enough views to get the Republicans to 60 votes with anything close to reliability. And even if they could and the House GOP went along with the bill (which seems a safe assumption), it would still face Obama’s veto pen.

That still leaves Senate Republicans several smaller openings, one of which is the Congressional Review Act. As the Center for American Progress pointed out, the law gives the House and Senate the ability to block a rulemaking by the executive branch if both houses pass a joint resolution disapproving of the rule — and in the Senate, the filibuster does not apply to these votes. So with a simple majority, Republicans in the Senate could join Republicans in the House to shutdown major rulemakings over the next two years. The most prominent candidate would be the aforementioned regulation of power plant emissions, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) won’t finalize until after the election.


Next, thanks to the recent filibuster reform, the Senate now only needs simple majorities to approve presidential nominees to various agency positions and regulatory posts. So the minority can no longer use the filibuster to prevent any position other than a Supreme Court vacancy from being filled. But if the GOP retakes a majority in the Senate, they could return to their previous habit of summarily blocking President Obama’s nominees. If any agency or post crucial to climate and environmental issues comes up for a nomination and vote, it could be left leaderless.

Furthermore, as Republic Report noted, a GOP majority in that house of Congress would flip several key committees into Republican hands. In particular, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) is up to take over the Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) would head the Subcommittee on Science and Space, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) is in line to take control of the Homeland Security and Governmental Reform Committee, and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) would head up the Budget Committee. All except Enzi have explicitly denied the science behind how fossil fuels drive global warming. The Homeland Security and Governmental Reform Committee in particular handles most of the Senate’s oversight and investigations, and Johnson has already used previous hearings to lambaste NASA scientist James Hansen over climate change. Enzi and Inhofe have also criticized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule cutting power plant emissions, and regulations of methane leaks. So while these positions wouldn’t give Republicans additional power to alter laws on their own, it would allow them to make life much more difficult for various agencies through investigations and a more hostile government culture. “Republican control of the Senate “would likely lead to more intrusive and time consuming hearings on the EPA, its funding, and the nature of climate regulations,” as the Brookings Institute put it.

Support from the legislature will also be important for President Obama’s credibility when the next round of international climate talks takes place in Paris in 2015. Regardless of how next week’s election shakes out, Senate ratification of any treaty would be unlikely, and the Obama Administration is already pursuing various workarounds. But trust between nations is crucial to bringing all the major players to the table and getting them to agree to binding cuts. If other countries doubt the reliability of EPA regulations to cut emissions from power plants, cars, and so forth, or don’t feel Obama can credibly make promises with a GOP-controlled Congress hanging over his head, they may back out.

Which brings up the one big way the GOP could get around Obama’s veto, handcuff the EPA, and make other substantive policy changes.

As Seth Michaels laid out at Talking Points Memo, the White House and the U.S. Congress face two key chores over the next two years: they must authorize new budgets to keep the government functioning, and they must raise the debt ceiling. Since both bills have to be passed to avoid a shutdown or worse, Republicans could attach ancillary demands to them as the price of passage. With majority power in both houses, and with the reconciliation process allowing a host of chances to pass budget bills with a simple majority vote in the Senate, Republicans would have largely unchecked power to shape those bills before they land on Obama’s desk. The President would then have to decide whether to accept the demands or risk a shutdown or default.


What could those demands include? In 2011, House Republicans tried to defund any efforts by the EPA to follow through on its regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, and have already undercut environmental protection rules with previous budget cuts. They’ve also pushed for laws that would’ve handed the Energy Department new powers to curtail rulemakings by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); a bill that would ram through authorization of the Keystone XL pipeline; and a roll-back of the EPA’s authority to protect waterways, lakes, and the like.

With regard to the international climate talks, Republicans have also repeatedly threatened to cut off U.S. funding to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its Framework Convention on Climate Change. Zack Colman at the Washington Examiner reported that the combined $10 million the U.S. gives to both projects constitutes the bulk of their budgets. Another option for Republicans would be a law requiring any climate treaty to pass through Senate ratification.

“The entire Senate Republican leadership has voted time and again to block EPA from protecting public health by cutting carbon pollution, to gut our cornerstone environmental protections, and to side with polluters rather than the American people,” the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group, told ThinkProgress. “If past is prologue, a Republican-controlled Senate is a scary thing to contemplate.” With full control of Congress, Republicans could name any number of those ideas as the price to keep the government open or to avoid a debt crisis, then dare the President to refuse.

A distinction is also worth making here. A government shutdown would be economically destructive, and would grind many crucial environmental functions to a halt — think toxic waste cleanup, the running of marine sanctuaries and national parks, climate research, and permitting processes for everything from infrastructure construction to oil and natural gas drilling. But just what government should be doing and how much it should spend is also an undeniably legitimate subject for Congressional debate and disagreement. Raising the debt ceiling is another matter. This must be done to pay off debt incurred by bills the government previously passed. Government shutdowns, however obnoxious, are the result of honest disagreement. Debt crises are fundamental failures to take responsibility for policies both sides have already signed off on — they literally take the economy hostage in order to do an endrun around democratic compromise.

When previous standoffs between the Republicans and the White House raised the mere possibility of a debt default, that was enough to temporarily kneecap the economy. Actually carrying through on the threat would be completely unprecedented. If Republicans decide to re-initiate that hostage-taking, it’s not hard to imagine President Obama giving up a good deal on the climate and environmental front to avoid finding out just how bad the damage of a debt default would be.