Wonkbook: The GOP’s problem with climate science

May 13, 2014

Welcome to Wonkbook, Wonkblog’s morning policy news primer by Puneet Kollipara. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. To read more by the Wonkblog team, click here.


(AP Photo/AJ Mast)

As scientists and governments sound louder alarms on climate change, the viewpoints of prominent Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are going in the opposite direction. As my colleague Jaime Fuller reported yesterday, Rubio this weekend said: "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it."

Of course, I don't want to pretend that I can read Rubio's mind (or the minds of other Republicans). But his statements reflect the delicate dance Rubio and other Republicans may have decided to play in — pardon the pun — today's GOP political climate. Rubio may seek the presidency in 2016, and to bolster his chance of getting the nomination, he may feel he needs to take positions that don't hurt him with his party's base — a group that is largely at odds with the idea that humans are changing the climate.

It wasn't long ago that addressing climate change actually had at least some measure of GOP support in Congress. Back in 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain supported a cap-and-trade bill to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. And the first-ever cap-and-trade bill introduced in the Senate had a GOP lead cosponsor. But when Democrats gained control of Congress and the White House in 2009 and started a cap-and-trade push of their own, climate legislation of any form became anathema for Republicans. Perhaps that partially explains Republicans' backtrack on climate policy.

But that doesn't explain why so many Republican politicians reject the science on climate change. The GOP has to wrestle with the views of a base that is, frankly, unfriendly toward the idea of man-made climate change. Even as a majority of the general public believes that the climate is changing (less when you prompt them on whether they think humans are to blame), Republican support falls below the average or even below majority level, polls show. When you dive deeper into the data, the divergence is even more stark among tea partiers, the party's most passionate voters, who have outsized influence in GOP primaries. A recent poll showed that majorities of self-identified Democrats and independents and non-tea party Republicans accept climate change (again, not all of the respondents agree that humans are the cause). Only self-identified tea party Republicans reject climate change.

What makes Rubio's climate views somewhat ironic is that his state could suffer immensely from climate change's impacts, according to scientific studies and reports such as the newly released National Climate Assessment. While forecasting how climate change will affect specific regions is an inexact science, we have good reason to think that Rubio's own home city will someday sweat the impacts of higher sea levels, as Coral Davenport pointed out last week in The New York Times. — Puneet Kollipara

Wonkbook’s Number of the Day: 12 feet. That's how much sea levels could rise as a giant Antarctic ice sheet melts in the coming centuries, a change that scientists worry may be irreversible.

Wonkbook’s Chart of the Day: Some early indications that Obamacare exchange premiums won't be skyrocketing.

Wonkbook's Top 4 Stories: (1) How the GOP's recent Obamacare silence could change; (2) Congress has no energy for energy policy; (3) the improving economy's broader impacts; (4) new pressure for GOP on immigration.

1. Top story: The GOP is quiet right now on health care, but that could change

Republicans are going quiet on Obamacare. "Not a single House committee has announced plans to attack the healthcare law in the coming weeks, and only one panel of jurisdiction commented to The Hill despite repeated inquiries. GOP campaign committees also declined to say whether they will launch any new efforts on the law. The lack of action highlights the GOP’s struggle to adjust its message now that enrollment in the exchanges beat projections and the uninsured rate is going down. Insurers also report that 80 to 90 percent of new policyholders are paying their premiums, contradicting a frequent criticism from the GOP." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

But another health care brouhaha awaits: 2015 exchange premiums. "Premiums for 2015 are starting to be released by state insurance departments as insurers submit them and will continue to dribble out over the year. Here are two things to keep in mind as this issue unfolds: First, 85% of those who purchase insurance in the new marketplaces will get a government subsidy in the form of a tax credit to help defray the cost of the premium. That means that most people buying in the exchanges won’t pay much even if their premium cost goes up significantly....Second, premium increases will vary a lot across the 501 Affordable Care Act premium rating areas, which basically coincide with counties." Drew Altman in The Wall Street Journal.

Proposed premiums up in Va., but not by feared amounts. "In the first look at how insurers plan to adjust prices in the second year under the federal health-care law, filings from Virginia carriers show they are opting for premium increases in 2015 that will pinch consumers' pocketbooks but fall short of some bigger rate predictions. The new premium proposals, detailed in official filings to the state's insurance regulator, show health plans all opting for some increases. The filings show insurers' planned increases easily outpacing broader U.S. inflation, but shy of the much larger boosts some critics predicted." Louise Radnofsky in The Wall Street Journal.

Same in Washington state. "Average premium changes for Washington, meanwhile, ranged from a 6.8 percent decrease to a 14.2 percent hike. Most listed insurers posted single-digit increases or decreases. Two new insurers, Columbia United Providers and UnitedHealthcare, also entered the market — a potential sign that the market is viewed as healthy....These are, however, only proposed rate changes. So the final rate changes could be even lower, since proposed premium hikes tend to come down during negotiations between regulators and insurers. Virginia and Washington aren't necessarily representative of how premiums will change across the rest of the country." German Lopez in Vox.

Among the states where premiums could rise more is W.Va. "Each state is its own insurance market, and they had wildly different experiences during Obamacare's first open-enrollment window. So although nationwide statistics are important for judging the law's political success, the substantive tests for the law's future mostly lie with the states — and some of them aren't looking so hot. Predicting premium increases is an inexact science to say the least, but health care experts see a troubling number of red flags in certain states. Perhaps the most vulnerable is West Virginia — the home state of Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who's awaiting confirmation as the next Health and Human Services secretary." Sam Baker in National Journal.

A red-blue divide on the patients that hospitals are seeing. "A few months into Obamacare's coverage expansion, there's been plenty of debate about where the millions of newly insured have obtained coverage — whether through the law's exchanges, directly from an insurer, through expanded Medicaid or through an employer. The health-care law's immediate impact is a little more clear in hospitals, which are starting to report who's coming through their doors during the first months of expanded coverage under the Affordable Care Act....One thing that stood out: They're reporting a blue state-red state divide in the kinds of patients they're seeing." Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

What primary care doctor shortage? "The headlines were ominous: Good luck finding a doctor under Obamacare. Not enough doctors for newly insured. Obamacare, doctor shortage could crash health system. Despite these dire predictions, the nation’s primary care system is handling the increased number of insured patients without major problems so far, according to interviews with community health centers, large physician practices and insurers nationwide....There are few reports of patients facing major delays getting care, say officials from more than two dozen health centers and multi-group practices, as well as insurers and physician groups in nine big states." Phil Galewitz in Kaiser Health News.

Other health care reads:

Medicaid's new patients may be healthier, and cheaper. Dan Gorenstein in Marketplace.

Overused Medicare services cost billions of dollars. Jordan Rau in Kaiser Health News and NPR.

Poll: Kentuckians only hate Obamacare if you call it Obamacare. Sarah Kliff in Vox.

HILTZIK: Time to nix the employer mandate? "With other provisions of the Affordable Care Act taking hold, the time may have come to consider lifting the employer mandate. As for whether that will reduce political opposition to Obamacare, however, our feeling is: dream on. Critics of the act are driven less by the sort of sober analysis produced by the Urban Institute, and more by crass partisan calculation. Indeed, if not for partisanship in Washington, there's a chance that the employer mandate would have been revised or repealed long ago. It has always been questioned by a broad spectrum of economists, who are uneasy about its labor market effects." Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times.

TROY: Will employer health plans become a casualty of Obamacare? "The White House still insists that employers will remain the main source of health care for Americans, but...as the costs to employers mount, many on the left may follow Emanuel and embrace the concept of employers leaving the health care marketplace. When that happens, no one should be surprised. Back in 2007...one Ezekiel Emanuel and co-author Victor Fuchs argued in The Washington Post that we should 'Get businesses out of health care.' The American people may not have wanted this outcome, but businesses may now be getting out of health care sooner than previously thought." Tevi Troy in Politico Magazine.

CONOVER, FEYMAN AND RESTREPO: Health care's Cash for Clunkers? "That program gave car buyers rebates of up to $4,500 if they traded in less fuel-efficient vehicles for new vehicles with better gas mileage. But because most of the vehicles garnering such rebates would have sold anyway, taxpayers ended up paying about $24,000 per additional car sale these incentives produced. Obamacare appears to be in a fierce race to beat Cash for Clunkers to become the poster child for mismanagement of federal taxpayer resources....In reality, there was substantial variation across states on these various metrics. " Christopher Conover, Yevgeniy Feyman and Katherine Restrepo in Forbes.

FRAKT: A healthier paycheck if you stay on your parents' plan. "The new study estimates that the law will lead to sustained wage increases for affected young adults closer to 4 percent. We’ll need to wait for more evidence to know for sure, but the latest findings show yet another example of the economic costs of our dysfunctional health-care system. For all its imperfections, the health-care overhaul seems to have addressed some of those problems in ways that could increase the financial well-being of young Americans." Austin Frakt in The New York Times.

Top opinion

REICH: A return to the Gilded Age? "As French economist Thomas Piketty shows beyond doubt in his 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century,' we are heading back to levels of inequality not seen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. The dysfunctions of our economy and politics are not self-correcting when it comes to inequality. But a return to the Gilded Age is not inevitable. It is incumbent on us to dedicate ourselves to reversing this diabolical trend. But in order to reform the system, we need a political movement for shared prosperity." Robert Reich.

RAMPELL: How Congress is keeping the housing market on hold. "Housing has not quite been the boon to the recovery that economists had hoped and dreamed (or at least forecast) it would be. And the government is partly to blame....Look, I’m usually skeptical of the 'regulatory uncertainty' explanation for economic mediocrity. But when it comes to the housing finance system, there's good reason to believe that suspended animation is indeed discouraging both mortgage lending and homebuilding and thereby dragging on the entire economy." Catherine Rampell in The Washington Post.

CASEY: Keystone XL is D.C.'s dumbest debate. "No issue better captures the dysfunction of Washington than the trumped up debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. Tuesday, the Obama administration released its 3rd National Climate Assessment, with one key message: Climate change is real, here, and only set to intensify. There are many important decisions to be made to tackle this critical challenge, but Keystone XL isn’t one of them. Building the pipeline won’t have a discernable impact on the climate; scrapping Keystone won’t make America measurably less energy independent." Claire Casey in The Daily Beast.

SUFI AND MIAN: Why the housing bubble tanked the economy and the tech bubble didn't. "Despite seeing similar nominal dollar losses, the housing crash led to the Great Recession, while the dot-com crash led to a mild recession. Part of this difference can be seen in consumer spending. The housing crash killed retail spending....The bursting of the tech bubble, on the other hand, had almost no effect at all; retail spending from 2000 to 2002 actually increased by 5 percent. What explains these different outcomes? In our forthcoming book, 'House of Debt,' we argue that it was the distribution of losses that made the housing crash so much more severe than the dot-com crash." Amir Sufi and Atif Mian in FiveThirtyEight.

DOUTHAT: A missed opportunity for moderate Republicans on minimum wage. "A moderate wing of the G.O.P. that just imitates the Democrats on a few issues where the liberal line is popular isn’t necessarily doing either its party or the country any great favors. To be truly constructive in their moderation, the G.O.P.’s centrists should be advancing alternatives to popular liberal ideas — trying to create a different center of political gravity, in effect, rather than just looking for ways to take some losing issues off the table. For a case study of the latter, less constructive sort of centrism, consider the recent cluster of Republican politicians...who have spoken in favor of a minimum wage increase." Ross Douthat in The New York Times.

VOORHEES: The transportation solution that shall not be named. "Democrats and Republicans agree on two things....The second is that they know what needs to be done, but they are unwilling to do it. This contradiction has been on full display in recent weeks in Washington as lawmakers scramble to bail out the Highway Trust Fund. The account relies on revenues from fuel taxes to provide the bulk of federal funding....As a result, it has faced one looming shortfall after another during the past half-decade as Americans drive more fuel-efficient cars fewer miles and as the cost of construction rises while the fuel taxes themselves remain unchanged since 1993." Josh Voorhees in Slate.

McMANUS: The GOP's climate change dance. "They weren't calling climate change a hoax, as many conservatives once did (and some still do). They're not even challenging the scientific consensus that human activity has contributed to the warming of the Earth (although some still contest that finding too). Why the shift? Polls have found that most Americans are worried about global warming, except for one group — tea party conservatives....That puts the GOP in a bind, caught between its most zealous conservative supporters and the broader majorities it'll need to win elections. More worrisome for the GOP, younger voters are even more convinced that climate change is a big problem." Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times.

Animals interlude: This kitty cat does the best bear hug ever.

2. No energy in Congress to make big policy on energy

Senate deadlocked on energy bill, ending chances of a vote on Keystone. "The Senate deadlocked Monday on a bipartisan energy bill, with Republicans mounting a filibuster that also is likely to end any near-term consideration of the Keystone XL pipeline proposal that has become a key issue in several critical elections. The vote Monday — 55 to 36, mostly along party lines — on a modest energy efficiency bill sponsored by Sens. Jean Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) ended a long but sporadic attempt to approve legislation that has been ensnared by several controversial side issues amid Republican attempts to attach amendments to the measure." Paul Kane in The Washington Post.

Explainer: How much energy could we save, if we really tried? Brad Plumer in Vox.

It's been a while since Congress has done anything on energy. "The Senate, paralyzed by partisan bickering, has not been able to pass a major energy bill since 2007, and it now appears unlikely to do so before the November election....Both sides blamed each other, with Reid saying the stalemate represents what’s wrong with Congress when even a noncontroversial energy efficiency bill can’t pass....Senate Republicans, though, said they never had any deal with Reid and simply wanted their amendments to have a chance to be considered." Sean Cockerham in McClatchy Newspapers.

Can Congress ever have a reasonable energy debate? "The fact that Shaheen-Portman has faced so many hurdles before arriving at any kind of a vote points to the difficulty of moving even noncontroversial, bipartisa nenergy measures through the upper chamber. That difficulty has some senators worried about the prospects of passing meaningful energy policy. 'We have things that need to be resolved and advanced in the energy sector,' said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. 'If we can't get an energy-efficiency bill through the floor, what does that say about our ability as a Senate to act?'" Clare Foran in National Journal.

With the Keystone XL spat in the U.S., Canada looking elsewhere to ship its oil. "With TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline snarled in a regulatory and legal struggle south of the border, Canadian oil companies are proposing many new and expanded pipelines that would connect the oil sands fields with new markets in China and across the world. The planned projects that would snake east and west as well as south, could break the virtual United States monopoly market for Canadian oil exports, and enable oil sands production to climb by more than 25 percent in the next decade even if the Keystone pipeline is ultimately blocked....But there are many hurdles to clear." Clifford Krauss and Ian Austen in The New York Times.

Efficiency-bill spat offers a glimpse of how a GOP-controlled Senate would handle energy. "When Senate Republicans went to bat over a slew of energy amendments last week, they also offered up a preview of what 2015 will look like if the GOP takes the Senate....Their proposed amendments read like a laundry list of the party's energy goals: approval of the pipeline, legislation checking the Environmental Protection Agency's air-quality rules, and a full stop to the Obama administration's climate-change efforts for power plants." Jason Plautz in National Journal.

Why do Democrats fear billionaire environmental advocate Steyer? "Democrats have made casting conservatives as beholden to the ultra-rich central to their 2014 strategy, and that makes it awkward when a billionaire of their own puts himself front and center. Steyer is far from media-shy: He frequently gives interviews, and last month went a step further in publicly challenging Republican-backing billionaires — and favorite Democratic targets — Charles and David Koch to a debate over climate change. Steyer's persona, the skeptics feel, opens Democrats up to charges of hypocrisy, and leaves too much of the party's profile in the hands of a man who has been popularly elected to exactly nothing." Clare Foran in The Atlantic.

Other energy/environmental reads:

Collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet is underway. Darryl Fears in The Washington Post.

Keep in mind the scientific, societal meanings of collapse when reading about Antarctic ice. Andrew C. Revkin in The New York Times.

Wedding interlude: Epic mother-son dance mashup.

3. The improving economy's political and fiscal impacts

Could recovering economy buoy Democrats? "Here's a riddle: Many Republicans deny it's happening. Some Democrats don't want to talk about it. What is it? The answer is the growing U.S. economy, on pace to expand as much as 3.5 percent this year, about the best performance in the industrialized world....Better economic data could help persuade voters in November to look past President Barack Obama's weak approval ratings and his unpopular healthcare law and give Democrats enough lift to hold onto the Senate and limit their losses in the House, political strategists said. Yet a debate about the actual state of the economy, which Americans consistently rate in polls as among their top concerns, may be missing." Richard Cowan in Reuters.

Their focus on the minimum wage and inequality probably won't. Michael C. Bender in Bloomberg.

Analysis: Our fragile economy still needs time to gather its strength. Charlie Cook in National Journal.

The improving economy has cut the budget deficit significantly over the last 7 months. "The U.S. budget deficit fell sharply in the first seven months of the government's fiscal year as higher taxes and a slowly improving economy boosted federal revenues. The U.S. government's deficit from October through April totaled $306.41 billion, down 37% from the same period a year earlier, the Treasury Department said Monday....The budget picture has improved due to a slowly growing economy and higher taxes, which boost revenues, along with spending cuts." Josh Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal.

But this year's April surplus is less than expected. "The U.S. posted a smaller budget surplus in April than economists projected, as spending increased at more than twice the pace of tax receipts. Revenue exceeded spending by $106.9 billion last month, compared with a $112.9 billion surplus a year before, the Treasury Department said today in Washington." Kasia Klimasinska in Bloomberg.

Why has inflation been so subdued? Sluggish economy in '12-'13 is one reason. "It’s one of the big questions hanging over the U.S. economy: Why is inflation so subdued?...Economists at the Cleveland Fed have a theory. The current bout of low inflation is the product of multiple factors including slow economic growth, slack in the labor market and 'unexpected, temporary events that are specific to inflation,' wrote Edward S. Knotek II and Todd E. Clark in an essay....Inflation is likely to move up in the coming months and years, buoyed by stable expectations and an improving economy, according to Mr. Knotek and Mr. Clark." Ben Leubsdorf in The Wall Street Journal.

Markets are watching warily for a small inflation bump. "The next small steps up in inflation could set off big tremors in financial markets. The two main U.S. inflation gauges...are hovering near the lowest levels ever seen outside of recessions. Both sit poised to drift upward....Normally, a move of a couple of tenths of a percentage point in the inflation measures wouldn't matter much to anyone. But the stakes are high now as Federal Reserve officials justify their plan to keep short-term interest rates near zero in part because inflation is running so far below their 2% objective." Josh Zumbrun in The Wall Street Journal.

Other economic/financial reads:

Home prices climbed in fewer cities as demand cools. Prashant Gopal in Bloomberg.

Holder tightenes squeeze on banks. Devlin Barrett in The Wall Street Journal.

Why is the U.S.'s response to Pfizer-AstraZeneca deal so muted? Andrew Ross Sorkin in The New York Times.

GOP senate candidates struggle to find right message on minimum wage. Cameron Joseph in The Hill.

Robotics interlude: This robotic arm can catch things that you throw at it.

4. GOP feels the heat on immigration, but will that change anything?

Chamber chief says without reform, GOP might as well skip 2016. "Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, predicted that Congress would pass immigration legislation this year and said Republicans shouldn’t bother to field a presidential candidate in 2016 if they don’t. His comments echo warnings from others, including high-profile Republicans, that the GOP cannot win if it does not improve its showing with the fast-growing Latino electorate, and cannot do that without approving an immigration package. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill last summer but it has languished in the GOP-controlled House ever since." Laura Meckler in The Wall Street Journal.

Boehner says GOP wants reform but doesn't trust Obama. "Speaker John A. Boehner said Monday that most Republicans want to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, but that a lack of trust in President Barack Obama’s will to enforce the laws is keeping them from doing so.....The Ohio Republican, speaking at a luncheon sponsored by several San Antonio business groups, acknowledged that there are some in his conference who do not want to take on the issue, but he was measured in speaking about his colleagues’ resistance." Daniel Newhauser in Roll Call.

Is Chamber chief's comment just an empty threat? "He says the GOP can't win in 2016 if it doesn't back reform? A lot of analysts agree. But the chamber just spent heavily in North Carolina to make sure that Thom Tillis, who opposes the reform bill backed by the chamber, won the GOP's Senate nod. Yes, in the state, he's backed a guest-worker reform that business supported. But the chamber is funding (really, really funding) candidates who are open to reform without any guarantees about what they'll back." David Weigel in Slate.

Business, evangelicals have a lot of bark but little bite on the issue. "For all the conservative clout that evangelicals and the Chamber traditionally have, it appears many House Republicans are not listening to them. The question being asked by other advocates is: Why not? It might be, ultimately, that the battle isn't winnable -- even evangelicals and the Chamber may not be able to convince Republicans to abandon concerns about President Obama's trustworthiness, questions about election-year strategy or qualms about a comprehensive bill." Elise Foley in The Huffington Post.

Inspirational interlude: One man doesn't let his lack of arms prevent him from playing table tennis.

Wonkblog roundup

Why society is failing to stop global warming, in one 90-second video. Puneet Kollipara.

When driverless cars crash, who’s to blame? Brian Fung.

Hospitals see blue-red divide early into Obamacare’s coverage expansion. Jason Millman.

How to kill stinkbugs like a wonk. Christopher Ingraham.

What’s in your wallet? Probably not cash. Jonnelle Marte.

Et Cetera

Will U.S. patent bill regain its momentum? Diane Bartz in Reuters.

GOP hatching plans to block school-lunch changes. Helena Bottemiller Evich in Politico.

Revised sexual assault agreement with Tufts signals stronger U.S. enforcement. Sara Lipka in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Obama administration pushes Congress on highway funding. Jeffrey Sparshott in The Wall Street Journal.

Obama faces liberal anger over judicial nominees. Timothy M. Phelps in the Los Angeles Times.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail us.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams and Ryan McCarthy.

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