Carbon cap-and-trade legislation appears to be Dead Policy Walking in Washington. The devaluation of the Copenhagen climate summit – now the goal is a “politically binding” rather than a “legally binding” agreement — reflects the emerging political reality in the United States. Yes, a bill did pass the House of Representatives in June. Also, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee passed a version earlier this month. So President Barack Obama won’t go to the talks in Denmark with empty pockets next month.
Publicly, Senate Democratic leaders say they are only pushing off debate and consideration of a comprehensive climate change bill until spring. But it is hard to get a major bill passed in a Democrat-controlled Senate when the Democratic majority leader of the Senate wants the bill to go away. And have no doubt that Senator Harry Reid would like to see cap-and-trade go away — or at least disappear until after 2010.
This explains why six different Senate committees will consider the bill, the same recipe for legislative inaction that bogged downhealthcare reform. It’s pure politics. The 2010 midterm elections are shaping up to be tough contests for many Democrats thanks to the anti-incumbent mood of a recession-weary electorate. And most signs point to a sustained level of high unemployment. As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said in a recent speech, “The best thing we can say about the labor market right now is that it may be getting worse more slowly.”
A new Gallup poll finds that 51 percent of Americans see the weak economy or high unemployment as their biggest concerns. Barely 3 percent mention the environment. And Democrats have been unable to sell cap-and-trade as a job creator. At worst, the public sees it as a jobs killer or a costly energy tax. That charge has particular weight in Reid’s home state, Nevada, a high energy-use state. (All those air conditioners!) So Reid doesn’t want to have to vote for it, which he would be compelled to do as majority leader. And neither do moderates like MaryLandrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor, Debbie Stabenow and Jim Webb. They noticed the heat that centrist House members who voted for cap-and-trade took from constituents during Congress’ summer break.
Webb of Virginia may point to one path forward with a new bill he is co-sponsoring with Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican. It would spend $20 billion on five mini-Manhattan Projects to study various clean energy technologies, including nuclear.
It’s a plan that seems more likely to create jobs, grow the economy and help the environment — at least more so than one completely out of sync with the electorate. And it is one also more likely to make it into law. Despite being subjected to years of hectoring from the media, entertainment industry and government, the American public clearly has no appetite for any climate-change plan that involves more taxes, more regulation and a possible lower standard of living.
And if cap-and-trade is dead for 2009 and 2010, it probably has little hope of reviving in 2011 or beyond when Congress is unlikely to be as Democratic or as green.