What sank the Senate's climate bill

By Stephen Stromberg
Thursday, July 29, 2010; A23

Who killed the climate bill? Democrats who supported climate legislation in the House feel betrayed, The Post reports; after they approved a controversial cap-and-trade bill, Democratic leaders failed even to hold a vote on similar legislation in the Senate, and GOP challengers are on the attack. A few environmentalists blame lawmakers who led the effort for compromising some good policy out of the legislation.

But the real answer is simpler: Too many senators have little, if any, incentives to pass climate policy that's rational in the long term and good for the country as a whole. Also to blame is President Obama's policy agenda, which prioritized health care.

The ire of activists -- such as Rockefeller Family Fund Director Lee Wasserman, who wrote Monday in the New York Times that the bill failed because it was one "for historic polluters, not the American people" -- is understandable. Congress toiled with industry and enviros to produce compromise legislation that was, well, compromised. In the Senate, a proposal that started out with a carbon cap on most of the economy ended up with one limiting just the utilities sector. In the House, negotiators agreed to big subsidies for "clean coal" technology and other favored projects. Pollution permits that should be auctioned were to be given to favored groups. A simple carbon tax or a cap-and-rebate program would have been better.

These compromises made the bills longer, more complicated and easier to criticize. But saying they were the primary reasons the Senate bill died last week is like saying it was difficult for Democrats to pass health care because the bill didn't dismantle the employer-sponsored health system. Such a proposal might have attracted interest among lawmakers who ultimately opposed health-reform legislation. But other votes would have evaporated, too.

Two factors enabled lawmakers to feel comfortable opposing carbon-pricing policies in whatever form they came this year.

First was the system. There aren't many incentives for lots of senators to vote for a reasonable climate bill. Senators from coal states and the South worried that their regions would be disproportionately hurt. The effects of climate change won't be dire for years; and Congress, with its frequent elections, isn't good at accepting short-term pain for long-term gain.

With few exceptions, Republicans have behaved shamefully on climate issues in this Congress, opposing policies that their party embraced in the 1990s (think cap-and-trade). Yet none of them will pay a price in November, and many GOP challengers will benefit.

The second factor was Obama. Someone had to change the balance of incentives acting on lawmakers. Buying them off one by one got negotiators somewhere, but not far enough. The effort required a sustained presidential push -- the sort that involves plenty of face time and convinces enough senators that they could lose if they obstructed.

Obama, however, decided to elevate another complicated, politically fraught issue first. He and his party were pummeled for months before health care passed. After that battering, Democrats chose to complete financial reform. That dragged on, too. Eventually, there wasn't much time left on the legislative calendar for climate policy, and the president, having exhausted Congress with big initiatives, didn't appear keen to press hard for a meaningful climate bill.

Obama's Oval Office address on energy policy last month barely alluded to carbon pricing. Obama brought senators to the White House to discuss climate, but those meetings lacked the prominence of previous policy summits and accomplished little. Hill staffers and environmental lobbyists complained about a lack of engagement from the administration, saying that they couldn't get guidance on legislative language Obama would defend.

To be fair, the president got some green initiatives into last year's stimulus. Nevertheless, those involved in the climate debate began to sound like the supporters of union "card check" legislation and other liberal priorities that Obama snubbed in his first two years. "Where is the president?" became a common, off-the-record refrain, feeding a broader narrative about a White House that gave a dysfunctional Congress too much deference and failed to deliver quickly on countless commitments.

That narrative, though, isn't quite right. Obama didn't sell out his supporters. He prioritized. It was never likely that he would get two major reforms in his first two years, while also cleaning up after the worst financial crisis in decades. And it will be tough to get anything grand through future Congresses with fewer Democrats. So the choice wasn't between a climate bill and no climate bill. It was between a climate bill and health reform.

The president had the political capital and the numbers in Congress to pass something big. He chose health care.

The writer is deputy opinions editor of washingtonpost.com.

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