Does America Have What It Takes to Pass a Climate Bill?

by Tim Profeta | July 8th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 1 comment

Bill Chameides is on vacation. He’ll be back the week of July 12th.

To get a climate bill, America’s leaders must lead.

Here we are on July 8, once again talking about the latest version of Senate climate legislation to be hypothesized for eventual debate. This time, it’s an assemblage of the last few proposals — proposals released, rumored, and conceived by a number of senators, including Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), et al. — to tackle our dependence on fossil fuels (particularly oil, the stuff spilling into the Gulf of Mexico daily) by creating a scaled-back program to create a greenhouse gas market. This version will need to be created in two weeks time, so that the Senate can mold it into something acceptable and bring it to a vote before August 6.

Such a rush is clearly challenging. Never has the nation considered environmental legislation as transformative as the creation of a greenhouse gas market. But the ideas and concepts necessary to do so are there — policies and proposals to address the legislation’s key questions have been developed over the past four Congresses, and the senators are familiar with the toolkit. Yet, the effort will only succeed if our nation’s leaders provide a great more deal of leadership on climate than we’ve experienced to date.

Senators Must Be in It to Win It

More than anything else, such a task must reverse a prevailing sense that the possibility of passage does not exist. Hard legislative processes such as enacting a climate change bill often fall victim to self-fulfilling prophesies. If legislators do not believe that a legislative effort is “real” and that the leaders are attempting to forge a hard compromise, they are unwilling to come to the table and engage in the politically dangerous conversations necessary to create that compromise. And hence, the bill fizzles and fails.

Hard legislation, therefore, requires leaders with power to actualize a bill by clearly and firmly indicating their intentions to push the process to completion. For Senate legislation, three persons hold the power to do this:

  1. the committee chair charged with producing a bill in regular order,
  2. the majority leader charged with setting the chamber’s priorities, and
  3. the president and his bully pulpit.

With regard to climate legislation, this leadership has not been forthcoming, and no bill is likely to succeed without it.

Just today, the cynicism about such a bill’s prospects spilled out of a story by the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank (always a good weathervane for Washington’s conventional wisdom), when he wrote that, in talking to a conference of young activists, Jim Messina, Obama’s deputy chief of staff, “suggested that immigration reform, climate legislation and an end to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ are all imminent (they aren’t).”

The Committee Process Out, A New Forum for Creating Compromise Is Needed

So what must emerge to create the needed leadership, and convince the likes of Milbank that climate legislation is possible?

Of our three possible leaders, only two are left. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, produced legislation this past fall that drove through a bill that buttressed her progressive credentials for her reelection bid but also stimulated a Republican boycott of the committee processes. Boxer’s effort was so clearly tarred that her chief co-sponsor, John Kerry, immediately disowned it and began an alternative process.

In the absence of the committee process, now run aground, some other forum must be assembled to develop legislation. The leadership to deputize a new process really lies in the office of Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV), but thus far has not been forthcoming.

At various times, Sen. Reid has indicated that various senators have his imprimatur to develop the climate bill, effectively providing none of them with the delegation. Without an alternative forum clearly established by the leader, no member hoping to forge the final compromise knows where to go to have the necessary conversations, and those members that are skeptical that the effort is “real” have no process pushing them towards another conclusion.

On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Obama has voiced his desire for climate and energy legislation, calling for such a bill in the wake of the gulf oil spill, but has done little himself to get the alternative-forum ball rolling. Deferring to the legislative branch has been the president’s tendency but is unlikely to succeed in this instance, as the Senate’s ability to assemble a compromise has foundered.

The Window Is Still Open for Climate Legislation, Albeit Only a Crack

The oil spill provides a daily, compelling case to move beyond fossil fuels, and many potentially regulated parties are now willing to discuss an alternative to the less-efficient Clean Air Act regulation.

A comprehensive bill is unlikely to emerge at this time — the transportation sector is likely to be removed from it and held for debate on subsequent legislation of its own — but the bill could still provide the positive and long-term investment incentives towards green technology that many hope a greenhouse gas market will spur. Now for the leadership to make such an effort “real.”

If you want to know if the United States still has a shot to pass climate legislation this Congress, watch the actions of Senator Reid and President Obama. They hold the key.

Tim Profeta is the director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. From 2000 to 2005 Profeta served as Environmental Counsel to Senator Joseph Lieberman, and was a principal architect of the Lieberman-McCain Climate Stewardship Act of 2003.

filed under: carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, energy, faculty, fossil fuels, global warming, guest, oil, policy, politics
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1 Comment

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  1. MattN
    Jul 9, 2010

    Does America have what it takes to pass a meaningful climate bill that actually does something and doesn’t make huge concessions to every major corporation and energy company? No. We can pass a climate bill, sure. One that does essentailly nothing but make everything more expensive for the consumer while giving corporations more incentives and breaks. No thank you. I’ll pass. Doing nothing is better than that…

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