Many in Washington have suggested reframing the rationale for green-energy policies, turning it into a question of energy security, green jobs or international competition, particularly with China. President Obama has tried this approach to sell his rather modest green agenda, which includes such obvious things as increasing America’s tiny energy research budget.
It hasn’t worked; since the stimulus, the only real progress on green-energy policy under Obama has come in initiatives the president has been able to move unilaterally. What makes spending money on green energy really worthwhile isn’t drastically slashing oil imports, which America will rely on for decades no matter what we change now. And it’s not creating jobs immediately, since a transition to a green economy will take years and result in both job gains and losses. The big reason to act now is to lower carbon emissions.
Even if the energy-security or green-jobs arguments were more persuasive, they aren’t appealing enough to conservatives to persuade them to ditch one of their most-used lines against Democrats: that those liberals want to raise your energy bills. If there were any doubt that Republicans want to reprise this message next year, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a longtime GOP insider and chairman of the Republican Governors Association, eliminated it about a week ago when he accused the president of purposely raising energy prices.
But environmentalists might try a strategy that lawmakers have used for years: compromise. Not the way that the Democrats tried last year, when they proposed throwing mountains of taxpayer dollars toward coal and other favored constituencies in their effort to pass a sprawling cap-and-trade bill. If they want results soon, they not only have to ditch the cap-and-trade label but also have to persuade Republicans to assent to green-energy policies that many in the GOP don’t believe in and would rather not pass. They might be able to do that if negotiations about long-term budgets get serious and the parties engage in some real dealmaking.
Democrats would have to agree to reform Medicare more than they say they are willing to now. They should want to, since the program is too expensive in its current form and Republicans will require movement on the entitlement in any debt deal. Also, Republicans are likely to demand lowering certain taxes, especially on corporations.
In return, Democrats — backed by the budget math — will insist on new taxes and the maintenance of federal spending at levels higher than Republicans would like.
Green policies could be a nice fit here. One of the most appealing is a tax on carbon emissions. Those whose activities result in dangerous greenhouse emissions — things such as burning coal in power plants or mixing cement, with results that affect all of us — would have to pay something for them. This would raise lots of money — depending on the details, tens or hundreds of billions over a decade.
Republicans who worry about the economic effects of such a tax would feel more comfortable if it were offset in a package that lowers corporate taxes, payroll taxes or something else they care about. They would also see necessary investments in energy research and infrastructure paid for with a slice of the tax’s revenue, making the policy much more likely to succeed in promoting green technologies without affecting the deficit. Along with broader tax reform that includes other revenue-raisers, such as ending expensive subsidies for things such as second homes, these sorts of reforms would help rationalize America’s budget.
This is a long shot. Democrats would have to prioritize green-energy policy, something they haven’t done lately. More important, movement on any element of this budget package would require both parties to surrender their most effective political weapons — Democrats their defense of Medicare’s current construction and Republicans their anti-tax (particularly their anti-energy-tax) rhetoric. But it may be the only chance strong green-energy policy has in Congress anytime soon.
The writer is The Post’s deputy online opinions editor.