Two House lawmakers are about to find out whether Congress can solve a problem precipitated, in part, by concerns over climate change — without devolving into a fight over climate change.
It’s a politically perilous exercise for Reps. David B. McKinley, R-W.Va., and Peter Welch, D-Vt. They both acknowledge that many of their colleagues can’t help turning a discussion on environmental policy into a bitterly partisan debate, and it’s made it hard to effectively tackle any issue that’s even tangentially related.
But McKinley and Welch, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, are laying the groundwork for a piece of legislation they hope will change the tone.
Their bill, which has not yet been introduced, would deal specifically with individuals who have been displaced by the declining coal industry as natural gas and other “clean energy” sources are becoming favored for lower costs or higher environmental efficiency.
They want to create a program that provides paid job training and benefits to coal industry workers to make them marketable in other workforce sectors. Their model is the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, a successful and relatively noncontroversial federal initiative that re-trains individuals who are unemployed as a result of certain trade agreements.
The lawmakers' aim is to keep the bill so narrowly focused that members won’t be tempted to turn it into a dumping ground for politically loaded amendments.
“The debate will continue on over climate change and I hope we can have an adult conversation about that,” McKinley said in a phone interview with CQ Roll Call. “At the same time, we want to make sure these people are not the collateral damage.”
For such a contentious issue, it’s significant that McKinley, whose state’s economy has historically been fueled by the coal industry, should partner up with Welch, whose state is so “green” it’s the only one the Environmental Protection Agency won’t regulate under its proposed carbon pollution limits for power plants — because Vermont doesn’t have any coal-burning facilities.
Their positions on energy policy often diverge. McKinley frequently blasts the Obama administration for promoting environmental regulations “based on ideology and not science,” while Welch criticizes the Republican-led House for “climate change denial.”
However, they have a history of finding common ground. They’ve teamed up before to advance legislation promoting energy efficiency. One of their bills, which establishes “best practices” for energy use for tenants in commercial real estate buildings, passed the House in March.
“In order for us to move ahead, there has to be some serious acknowledgement on the part of those of us who think climate change is an issue … that workers in the coal fields have been American heroes for years," said Welch, who joined in on the interview with McKinley. "You can buy into the importance of helping folks who ... suddenly had the rug pulled out from them."
According to the annual report published in December 2013 by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. coal production declined to the lowest levels in almost two decades in 2012, with the number of producing mines dropping in a year's time by 7.3 percent. The report also showed that employment at mines shrunk almost 2 percent between 2011 and 2012.
McKinley's and Welch's job training program would apply to a wide swath of workers adversely affected by the industry's decline — not just miners.
The lawmakers think their "coalition" will send an important message to colleagues about the bipartisan commitment to addressing what has, for them, become a humanitarian concern. They also say the bill, when it’s introduced, will fit in neatly with each party’s jobs agenda.
The obstacles ahead, however, are real.
For one, the bill will carry a price tag, meaning McKinley and Welch must identify offsets that won’t rankle too many members.
“I think the big issue is funding it,” predicted California Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the Energy and Commerce Committee’s top Democrat who’s retiring at the end of the year. “I haven’t seen much positive reaction from Republicans to fund anything that helps people who aren’t already well-to-do.”
The bill would also be a ripe target for “poison pill” amendments on climate policy — from both sides of the aisle — that could ultimately derail it.
“The whole range of things that get in the path of good ideas in Washington are out there lurking,” Welch said. “What we have that is an advantage is that we both serve on the committee.”
McKinley said he has already mentioned the bill to “leadership in the committee” and sensed “openness” to the idea.
But with its reach into employment issues that are typically handled by the Education and the Workforce Committee, the bill may not fall squarely within Energy and Commerce’s jurisdiction, if at all.
“It is likely not our jurisdiction,” said Energy and Commerce spokeswoman Charlotte Baker. Her boss, committee chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., told CQ Roll Call separately he had heard vaguely about the bill but wasn’t familiar enough to comment.
Jurisdictional questions aside, Energy and Commerce’s top Republican on energy and electricity issues signaled that members focused on turning back the Obama administration’s climate agenda would be hard-pressed to divorce that debate from the McKinley-Welch bill.
“We still are trying to stop the president’s extreme regulations, first of all, so that this is not necessary,” said Rep. Edward Whitfield, R-Ky.
He agreed Congress should ensure programs are in place to help train coal workers for jobs in other industries, but then offered ending production tax credits for the wind power industry as a potential offset. The suggestion the House find savings in scrapping an energy initiative derided and lauded in equal measure shows hows just how difficult it is, and will be, for members to resist revisiting longstanding policy fights to political ends.
Welch and McKinley have some time before they have to navigate these hurdles in earnest: With a bill not yet dropped and legislative days running short in the 113th Congress, it’s likely the real heavy lifting won’t start until next year.
When that time comes, they’ll have at least one House Republican prepared to back them.
Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., whose district includes Appalachian coal country, said EPA regulations are “clearly” hurting the industry.
“But let’s assume you buy into the myth that natural gas prices are low, and they’ll always be low, which is not factually supported, but let’s say you buy into that,” Griffith said. “You’d still ought to be willing to help the people who are being displaced.
“This is horrible devastation for proud people in proud communities,” he said, “and certainly, certainly, both sides of this issue would want to help those folks.”