Conventional wisdom says Congress ducks tough choices in election years, and it predicts at best a watered-down energy bill. The same doubters said health care reform was dead until we passed it and prematurely buried the Wall Street reforms we passed last week. They forget Congress passed the Clean Air Act in an election year and strengthened it in another election year to fight acid rain. Nothing would make Americans more frustrated than to see another year go by without action to break our dependence on foreign oil — which makes Iran $100 million richer every day — create millions of jobs and reckon with climate change. In 2010, our job is to do what Americans sent us here to do.
Can we? Of course we can. Two Congresses ago, 38 Senators voted for climate legislation. Last Congress — 54 votes. The American Power Act built on and learned from these examples. With 59 Democrats and several Republicans looking at the American Power Act with fresh eyes, 60 votes is achievable. The House passed a bill, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) prods Senate action. She says "it's about national security and jobs." Generals, admirals and CEOs agree.
President Barack Obama said our "legislation will put America on the path to a clean energy economy" and doubled down on legislative victory this year. Just this week, top White House adviser David Axelrod said of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: "It underscores the value in developing alternative sources of energy. ... So I hope that it will give added impetus to Congress to come up with and pass a comprehensive plan." Axelrod publicly committed the White House political team to — in his words — "press very hard."
The playing field has changed: The oil spill reinforced that we need a clean energy policy, but the sands were already shifting before that disaster. Already this year, companies and industries that successfully opposed previous legislation were standing with environmentalists behind the American Power Act. Twenty-two moderate Senate Democrats just wrote to Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) to endorse a comprehensive approach this year. If Congress doesn't legislate, the Environmental Protection Agency will regulate. This is the Senate's moment for leadership.
In this case, make no mistake: Good policy is also good politics. Washington ignores the economy at its peril. For some people, that's an excuse to defer action. They're wrong. Comprehensive energy and climate legislation is the next economic stimulus waiting to happen — and it's staring us in the face.
Why do this instead of taking the easy way out and just passing a watered down, energy-only bill? It boils down to a four-letter word: jobs. A comprehensive bill would create an estimated 1.9 million jobs over the next decade, whereas the "energy-only" measure would generate, at most, 500,000.
Here's the reality: This is a fight to create good jobs here that can never be outsourced. This is a fight to close the energy gap with China — so that we can reclaim the lead rather than falling further behind in the global competition for clean energy jobs, manufacturing and markets. And this is also a national security imperative because it reduces dependence on foreign energy.
Jump-starting our economy, ending oil dependence that helps hostile regimes and winning the global competition against China? Those sound like good politics to me. They are issues to campaign on.
Ultimately, this is an issue to lead on — now, not at some future date to be decided — because this may be the last and certainly the best chance for the Senate to act. The odds are that the next Senate — given a 2012 presidential campaign added to the dynamic and a slew of new Senators replacing many who are retiring and who have contributed to the progress we've made — is going to be less likely than this one to find a path to the 60 votes needed for passage. Practically speaking, we've got to get it done this year.
Morally speaking, it's even more urgent. Al Gore and I held the Senate's first climate change hearings in 1988, 22 wasted years ago. I can't count the press conferences after votes or international summits came up short where we said: "Wait till next year. Don't give up on the Senate." When we announced the American Power Act, an evangelical leader, the Rev. Joel Hunter, got it right: "I don't want to be standing before God on Judgment Day and say, You know, I really wanted to work to protect the Earth and the poor but wasn't sure the votes were there.'" This is a matter of political will, not capacity. We're not waiting any longer. The votes will be there — if we lead the way.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and chief sponsor of the American Power Act.