The ‘Sausage’ of Climate Change

“To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.”

– Otto von Bismarck

As is often the case with legislation in the U.S. Congress, it takes a crisis to pass it. Absent a handy crisis, a looming Congressional recess can usually provide the necessary motivation to get legislation to the floor for a vote.

That is what happened before Congress left for its July 4 holiday, with the House of Representatives narrowly passing the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 by a vote of 219 to 212. Forty-four Democrats voted against it and eight Republicans voted in favor.

The Waxman-Markey bill, as it’s often referred to, is named for its primary authors, Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Energy and Environment subcommittee chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.).

It didn’t look likely to come to a vote ahead of the July 4 recess. Just a week earlier, on June 19, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) stated on the House floor, “At this point in time, I have no reason to believe that it’s going to be on the floor next week, but I want to make it clear to the members that work is being done as we speak on this bill.”

That work largely consisted of breaking deadlocked negotiations between Waxman and Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) over how the bill’s allocation of emissions credits (often called offsets) would affect farmers. Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, quoted Peterson on June 19 saying that the negotiations on the offsets “by and large blew up last night.”

But Waxman is known in Congress as a skilled tactician and consummate legislator. By the following Monday he had a deal with Peterson that gave authority for allocating agriculture offsets to the U.S. Department of Agriculture rather than the Environmental Protection Agency.

That was enough to secure Peterson’s vote for the bill – along with that of many Agriculture Committee members.

The deal was essential to the passage of the bill, because House Democrats needed the Agriculture Committee Democrats to vote for it, but that alone would not suffice. During the week Waxman negotiated with other representatives, tweaking the bill here and there such that it would garner their support. Every stakeholder group was part of the action.

The New York Times reported that these changes included projects to “bring home the bacon” to various legislators’ districts, such as a $50 million hurricane research center coming to the district of a junior Florida representative, or $1 billion in new energy job training and energy efficiency funds allocated to the district of a Congressman from Illinois.

To be fair, this type of activity is not unusual – it’s called legislating. It is the complicated and often unsavory process our nation uses to develop the body of law that governs our society.

But it also brings to mind Bismarck’s famous likening of legislating to sausage making.

Major provisions in the bill include:

  • A federal renewable energy standard of 15 percent by 2025.
  • Boosts to energy efficiency requirements.
  • A federal cap and trade system to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Programs to deal with the effects (mostly financial) of transitioning to a clean energy economy.

All four of these provisions were in the original draft legislation, but were modified as part of the negotiations.

There were two significant changes that had the bill’s supporters grousing that the resulting legislation had lost its teeth:

  • One was the reduction in the federal renewable energy requirement from 25 percent by 2025 in the original draft to 15 percent in the final bill. This was at the behest of southeastern states that do not have large amounts of qualifying renewable energy, and would have been forced to import such energy from other states to meet the standard.
  • The second major change was to the cap-and-trade scheme initially allocating 85 percent of the emission allowances to industry groups for free, as was done in Europe, rather than auction them to the highest bidder. This should prevent a rapid increase in prices for carbon-intensive fuels or industries.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, is holding a series of hearings to draft a Senate climate change bill. They will undoubtedly use much of the House bill as a guide.

The objective is to pass a bill out of the Senate by September. That is ambitious, because the Senate remains backlogged with political appointments yet to be confirmed for the administration, confirmation of Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor and the annual appropriations cycle that (in theory) should be concluded by Sept. 30.

But if the political will remains, it is possible.


Can a climate bill pass the Senate?

Yes, but not easily.

It will be tough to get 60 votes, even though Democrats now control 60 seats in the Senate. There are 16 Democrats in the Senate who have historically been skeptical about climate legislation, and there are a handful of Republicans who are likely to support such legislation. It will be difficult to assemble that coalition; expect more sausage making in the months ahead.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is taking a global view. According to Bloomberg.com, Kerry believes the Senate can muster 60 votes to pass climate change legislation. He is much less certain they can get 67 votes to ratify an international treaty in December in Copenhagen to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

Of course, it’s not just up to the Senate. The public also factors into the political calculus, and according to a July 1 poll by Scott Rasmussen:

  • 56 percent of Americans polled say they are unwilling to pay higher prices for clean energy and to combat global warming.
  • 21 percent are willing to pay an extra $100 per year.
  • 14 percent are willing to pay more than that.

Consequently, as veteran political pundit Charlie Cook explained in his National Journalcolumn (June 29, 2009), “Winning major policy debates often comes down to which side better defines or frames the issue. With the House’s razor-thin passage of the climate change bill … the fight now becomes which side will succeed in winning public support for its take on the legislation.

“Will the public see it as a long overdue first step toward reversing dangerous changes in our climate, as President Obama and Democrats would like to frame it? Or is it a massive tax increase with grave implications for our fragile economy, the case made by most Republicans?”

Do you have an opinion on this issue? Have you expressed that opinion to your elected officials? How about to your friends, co-workers and neighbors?

I’ve said before that representative democracy is an active, not a passive, pursuit. You get the government you deserve.

Perhaps now is the time to get personally involved, and encourage your friends to do likewise.

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Washington Watch - David Curtiss

David Curtiss served as the Director of AAPG’s Geoscience and Energy Office in Washington, D.C. from 2008-11.

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Creties Jenkins is a past president of the EMD.

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Policy Watch is a monthly column of the EXPLORER written by the director of AAPG's  Geoscience and Energy Office in Washington, D.C. *The first article appeared in February 2006 under the name "Washington Watch" and the column name was changed to "Policy Watch" in January 2013 to broaden the subject matter to a more global view.

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