Cap-and-trade a short-term win for Dems

June 30, 2009

James Pethokoukis — James Pethokoukis is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own —

California’s Henry Waxman and Massachusetts’ Edward Markey might rightfully be called the “godfathers” of the cap-and-trade climate legislation that just passed the U.S. House of Representatives. But in the end, it was Speaker Nancy Pelosi who determinedly willed to life what President Obama described today as an “extraordinary piece of legislation.”

But what did Pelosi really accomplish, other than momentarily satisfying the Green Lobby? Getting major energy and environmental legislation passed in the House of Representatives isn’t by itself a landmark accomplishment. Been there, done that.

In 1993, Democrats passed an energy tax by a vote of 219-213. And doing it again by a similarly razor-thin 219-212 vote — after more than a decade-and-a-half of intense political lobbying, numerous scientific studies, global media attention, Hollywood hectoring and, of course, Al Gore — doesn’t show a whole lot of tangible political progress for green Democrats.

One of Pelosi’s goals also was to get the bill passed without the votes of Democrats who might suffer at the polls in the 2010 midterm elections if they voted for the bill. (Many Democrats suffered for their BTU votes in the 1994 congressional elections when the Republicans won back the House.)

Mission accomplished, then. But it speaks poorly for Democratic messaging that cap-and-trade was such a risky vote for so many of the party’s members. It surely would have been better for the current momentum and eventual legislative success of the cap-and-trade bill for it to have passed the House by a wide margin.

The same delicate, precise formula that allowed the bill to succeed in that chamber won’t work in the Senate. For instance, more than a quarter of the bill’s House support came from the California and New York delegations whose members account for a fifth of the House. But those two states make up just four percent of the Senate. A cap-and-trade bill that can’t pass the House by a big margin probably can’t pass the Senate by even a narrow one.

And of course, the Senate, where you need 60 votes to end a filibuster, is a different manner of beast. Yes, Senate Democrats currently have 59 votes and seem likely to get a 60th from Minnesota. But there may already be as many as eight Democrats ready to vote against Pelosi’s creation.

And as unemployment continues to rise, climate change may sink further down the list of American voters’ priorities and that of centrist senators. Recall that the closing argument from Pelosi was that the cap-and-trade bill was about “four words: jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.”

A sign of desperation, since the traditional economic argument for dealing with climate change has never been that it was inherently pro-economic growth or a job creator.

Rather, the intellectually honest argument is that the economic costs of climate legislation would be less than the impact of doing nothing and letting carbon emissions skyrocket. But cap-and-trade is not a free lunch, and Democrats shouldn’t suggest it is.

Now President Obama surely would love to have a signed bill in his pocket by the time he wings his way to the global climate conference in Copenhagen next December. But rather than passing cap-and-trade, it is more likely that the Senate will have either voted it down by then, or not voted on it at all.

And much political energy will have been wasted that might have been more successfully spent on healthcare or union legislation or financial reform.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

It strikes me when it says one of pelosi’s goals was to get the bill passed without the help of dems who may suffer at the polls in 2010 for a yes vote. Hey guys Republicans, Democrats, Liberal, Conservative, Whatever you are, Progressive, How about listening to the American people? They don’t want this legislation they have called you, written you, E mailed you. Still you IGNORE them as if YOU know whats best for them. Personally, anyone who is up for re-election mid term, I believe, is in trouble. And to the rest who have two more years, Enjoy while you can. We WILL find people who listen and Represent us!

Posted by Jeremy | Report as abusive

Jeremy, what do the American people want? I find the bill sets substandard goals and heaps the responsibility for achieving most of the carbon reduction on the next two succeeding generations of Americans. We have already saddled them with the national debt, Wall Street bailouts, GM, Chrysler and the stimulus. Please, someone tell me if I forget anything. It appears this generation is unwilling to sacrifice anything to clean up it’s mess or leave the world a better place for posterity.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive