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|Climate change on Capitol Hill
The Waxman-Markey climate change bill would be a bold step forward,
but it needs help to make it past the Senate.
Things are finally
aligned in the US Congress to pass sweeping climate change
legislation. The new chairman of the relevant committee,
California's Henry Waxman, has been on the right side of the issue
for years. His deputy, so to speak, Massachusetts' Ed Markey, has
equally strong bona fides. Together, they've put together a fairly
robust climate change bill, which has won plaudits from most of
America's major environmental groups. The Democratic party enjoys a
five-seat majority in a 435-seat body led by Nancy Pelosi, for whom
climate change is a top priority.
There's just one problem: the other house of Congress.
The US Senate is, to paraphrase Norm Orenstein, a broken
institution. It is paralysed by egotism, both vis-a-vis its
individual members and the entire body's regard for itself. It is
designed in an undemocratic way, and it piles on to that
undemocratic design by standing forthrightly behind undemocratic
rules that have no particular basis in the US constitution
For some issues, that doesn't spell doom. The Senate's current make
up (58 Democratic members, 41 Republicans and one liberal Democrat
yet to be seated) means that the filibuster, or the threat thereof,
empowers a bloc of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans
to make a big mark on major legislation. But it doesn't give the
Republicans reliable veto power over President Barack Obama's entire
agenda. This is how the debate over the economic stimulus played
out, and, to a lesser extent, the federal budget as well.
But the Senate seems at times as if it's designed to choke the life
out of climate change legislation. One major problem is that the
constitution designed it to give the smallest states in the union
the same amount of representative clout as the most populous, which
skews the body's politics in a number of ways.
Republicans hold 41% of the Senate's seats, but represent a
significantly smaller percentage of the nation's population. Along
the same lines, Democrats from coal- and oil-producing states and
manufacturing states have disproportionate power relative to their
states' sizes. Combine that with the fact that most major
legislation can't pass without a 60-vote supermajority behind it,
and you can see why climate change legislation (or climate change
legislation that's up to the task of forestalling crisis) isn't a
That's a shame, because the Waxman-Markey bill (the American Clean
Energy and Security Act of 2009) is a fairly robust bill. It would
create a cap-and-trade system that would reduce greenhouse gas
emissions to 83% below 2005 levels by 2050 (and, perhaps more
importantly, would enforce steep reductions early – 20% reductions
by 2020 and 42% by 2030).
It has some potential shortfalls, too, most of which are meant to
short-circuit the political realities I outlined above. It would
hand out some emissions allowances to energy-intensive manufacturing
industries, instead of auctioning 100% of them. It contains
price-control provisions meant to keep allowances from becoming too
expensive too quickly, but which could ultimately make meeting
yearly emissions goals difficult. And it would allow companies to
account for emissions reductions by buying "offsets", many of which
are extremely dubious, or, at the very least, troublingly opaque.
But back to the politics. It's hard to know why Waxman and Markey
included these loopholes at the outset. Maybe those provisions will
serve as a sign of good faith and help the bill earn early support
from sceptical Democrats. But even if the bill had started out
flawless, the Senate would almost certainly have inserted those
flaws, and many many more, before subjecting it to a three-fifths
majority cloture requirement which it might well fail.
Which is all a very long way of saying: congratulations to the House
of Representatives! You're doing admirable work. We wish you the
best of luck. You're going to need it. But you must be used to the
frustration by now.