The Political Necessity of Climate and Energy Policy

Two major pieces of President Obama’s agenda are heading toward legislative action of some sort over the next several months.

Two major pieces of President Obama’s agenda are heading toward legislative action of some sort over the next several months. The first is health care reform, recently endorsed by both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). The second is climate and energy legislation, approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee after an aggressive push by its Chair, California Senator Barbara Boxer. The Republicans on the committee boycotted the vote, which ended up passing 11-1, with only Senator Max Baucus of Montana voting no. Baucus is the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and his opposition to the bill is an indication that the end game for the climate bill is still to come.

In the New York Times on November 5, John Broder wrote that “the move suggests that President Obama and Democratic supporters of the bill will have serious problems assembling the votes needed to enact it when it comes to the Senate floor, probably not before next year.” There is little question that the President, or, more precisely, his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, has a fight on his hands if the Administration is to get a climate law enacted before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen ends on December 18, 2009. Broder’s piece notes that the senior Republican on the environment committee, Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, believes that Boxer’s aggressive tactic in Committee “marked the death knell of efforts to enact a comprehensive climate change bill.”

Senator Inhofe may be right, but in my view he is underestimating the importance of the U.N. Climate Conference in Copenhagen. Contrary to Inhofe’s beliefs, Boxer’s move does not suggest that the climate bill is dead, but rather that its proponents have recognized that the calls for further negotiation, cost analysis and discussion are merely delaying tactics. Thus far, “no” has proved a simple and effective strategy for Republicans. It’s easy to communicate, and it has the Democrats on the run. But the off-year election that just took place may shake the Democrats out of their slow and steady slumber. They know that they must hold their base and motivate them to go to the polls, especially those new voters brought to the polls by Barack Obama in 2008.

To appeal to this base, the Democrats must stand for something. Actually, three things: 1. A revived private economy, stimulated by an activist government; 2. Health care reform that regulates insurance companies and provides coverage for poor people; and 3. Climate and energy legislation.

Democrats may be taking the hint from their dismal off-year election results that running on empty is a losing strategy. Republicans are trying to expand the scope of conflict and increase the noise level to frighten moderates into inaction. But perhaps the Democrats have finally figured out that the Republicans do not want to deal. If this is the case, and if the Democrats are to present a coherent record, they need to raise the stakes, stop talking and start acting.

I see the Boxer move not as an act of illogical desperation, but as a strategic step to take the fight right to her opponents. Copenhagen remains a real deadline for U.S. climate policy. The people who voted Obama into office, particularly his young supporters, want to see him play a leadership role at Copenhagen. The world’s media is going to be in Denmark this December, and the President’s political people know an opportunity when they see it.

Without a Senate bill enacted – particularly one able to survive a Senate-House conference committee – the President can’t go to Copenhagen at all. Right now, the Democrats and the President look weak and unable to make progress.  While EPA is moving aggressively to regulate carbon dioxide, more dramatic and visible action is needed. The White House needs to marshal the powers of the Presidency to move wavering legislators into Obama’s corner. In the last month or so we have started to see the White House deploy the power needed to get the health bill passed. Once a health bill is signed, Obama needs to move quickly on the climate bill. He needs to use his considerable rhetorical skills to mobilize public support.

The world’s eyes will be on Copenhagen. Will they see an American President’s leadership or will they once again be treated to a low-level American delegation with little to say and nothing to do? The first-time voters that voted for Obama in 2008 will sit on their hands in 2010 if they don’t start to see some real progress. And if I can see that from where I sit, I’m assuming the political folks in the White House can see it too.

The Political Necessity of Climate and Energy Policy