Big change is hard, particularly in Congress. The status quo has its defenders, and that’s absolutely true in energy policy.
But something extraordinary just happened: A majority of the House — including Members from coal states, industrial states, farm states and some reform-minded Republicans — passed a clean energy bill that will cut oil imports and put us on a path to a low-carbon economy. That’s a change in energy policy beyond anything in most Americans’ lifetimes.
[IMGCAP(1)]And now, this year, the Senate can and will do the same.
In the way hindsight works, maybe it now seems pre-ordained that the House would pass the American Clean Energy and Security Act, but let’s remember how it looked along the way.
In January, Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) pulled a Babe Ruth: He pointed to the outfield fence and promised he’d hit one out of his committee by Memorial Day. To many people, it seemed as improbable as the Washington Nationals winning the pennant this year.
All spring, gloomy reports were easy to find. Roll Call reported in April on the “nervousness— of “some conservative Democrats about moving quickly on legislation capping carbon emissions.—
That nervousness came to a boil in early May, when Roll Call reported that Rep. Rick Boucher (D), of coal-rich southwest Virginia, had “quickly emerged as a leading opponent— of the bill. Another report had Waxman “facing fire from all sides over his landmark measure to curb carbon emissions. ... After months of haggling, he still doesn’t have a deal that moderates will support.—
Even after Waxman won the votes of a strong majority in his committee, things were still said to look grim. Despite the undeniable forward momentum, the news was that many Democrats were likely to vote “no— when the bill reached the floor.
Yet somehow a majority of the House voted for the bill and sent it to the Senate.
How could this have happened?
It took a combination of very hard work by leadership, Members and staff. It took practical agreements to manage the legitimate concerns of Members, like Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), with big manufacturing facilities back home; Members like Boucher, from coal-mining districts; Members like Baron Hill (D-Ind.), Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) and John Boccieri (D-Ohio), from areas that burn a lot of coal; Members like G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), worried about the poor; Members from farm country, like Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and John McHugh (R-N.Y.); and Members like Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) and Zack Space (D-Ohio), who wanted to protect their voters from utility bill sticker shock. And it took a clear-eyed ability to keep focused on the goal.
The Senate, of course, has its own personality, but the political challenges on the north side of the Capitol are essentially those the House has already grappled with. The House bill protects the biggest constituency of all — consumers — by giving a large amount of allowances to utilities with the requirement that they must be used to benefit customers. As a result, the Congressional Budget Office puts the cost to the average household at about a postage stamp a day.
Industries like steel, glass and aluminum, which use lots of energy and face foreign competitors not yet under a cap, will be given allowances for a transition period. And thanks to the use of agricultural offsets, a comprehensive analysis by the Department of Agriculture says the bill will be a net plus for farmers, to the tune of billions of dollars.
Just as in the House process, you can read a lot in the press right now from Senators who are concerned about consumer costs, protecting manufacturing and taking care of farmers. No doubt the Senate will put its own stamp these issues, and there is room for improvement. But in dealing with the policy challenges, House Members have provided solutions. And by passing the bill, they have shown that those solutions pass the political test as well. The Senate would be well-served to study those solutions as it crafts its own bill.
Steve Cochran is director of the national climate campaign at Environmental Defense Fund.