The Leadership Meltdown in Washington DC

As Congress desperately tries to pass legislation to bail out Wall Street and restore confidence in the American economy, it

As Congress desperately tries to pass legislation to bail out Wall Street and restore confidence in the American economy, it is also managing to allow tax credits for renewable energy to expire at the end of the year. According to Robert Pear’s recent New York Times article: "The House and the Senate conceded Monday that they were in a stalemate over proposals to provide tax incentives for the production and use of renewable energy, leaving the future of the nascent industry in limbo."

Unfortunately, this tax incentive has gotten caught up in congressional tax policy gridlock – no one thinks this policy is a bad idea, but it’s basically the hostage of a broader debate on the budget and tax policy.

At the very moment when we need to do everything we can to promote renewable energy, the U.S. Congress is in the process of taking a giant step backward. While a week ago the Senate voted in favor of extending the credits by 93-2, and the House of Representatives voted 257-166 to pass H.R. 7060 the "Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act of 2008", the Senate and House versions differ and are probably too different to resolve in a House-Senate Conference Committee. Additionally, the White House has threatened to veto the House version.  

The nearly eight years of the Bush presidency has culminated in a leadership meltdown in Washington, D.C. While some type of economic bailout will almost certainly emerge in the next several days, and some type of renewable energy incentive program will eventually become law (possibly in 2009), we are seeing paralysis at the very moment we need direction. An expensive and ill-advised war, a risky ungoverned economy, a brain drain from all levels of federal service, the de-funding of the nation’s infrastructure and an underfunded and neglected science establishment are the legacies of this profoundly failed administration.

Americans have grown accustomed to a standard of living that is higher than we can sustain, and we have been asked to sacrifice nothing but a few moments of inconvenience at airport check-in. Lyndon Johnson tried and failed to have "guns and butter" during the Vietnam War and the younger George Bush tried and failed to wage a war in Iraq while cutting taxes. The result has been the economic crisis we are now in and the political paralysis that makes it difficult to respond to that very crisis.

At the peak of World War II, the government controlled nearly 50% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. Everyone contributed to the war effort: Kids collected tin cans and adults who couldn’t go into the military worked in defense industries. What about the present "war"?  It has been hard to tell if the "war on terror" is more than a public relations slogan for political candidates. The American people have been urged to continue consuming as the best way to fight global terror.  (See the chair people in the movie Wall-E for a compelling visual.)

It is this air of unreality and narrow thinking that has delayed a meaningful response to the crisis of global climate change and has resulted in inaction on the critical issues of global sustainability. Extreme poverty persists in a world that is swimming in economic consumption.  In contrast, we see the positive impact leadership can have when we look at the progress made by California under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and by New York City under Michael Bloomberg. In Washington we see nothing.

This is a critical presidential election because we cannot afford another decade of drift. The modern economy is built on confidence, stability and yes, the hope that we are moving toward sustainability. When the Wall Street bailout finally is enacted it will add no luster to the Bush legacy. Same for the renewable energy tax credit. We desperately need to build a viable renewable energy industry in America. We need to take this nation’s unique vision and immigrant-driven talent and lead the planet in a new struggle for global sustainability.  But to do that we will need a new president, and real leadership. Let’s hope we see that in 2009.

The Leadership Meltdown in Washington DC