WHEN A carefully built, bipartisan energy bill failed in the Senate in May, it was one of the worst instances of unwarranted Washington gridlock. By the same token, precisely because it is so sensible and enjoyed such bipartisan support, it offers one of the most obvious ways for Congress’s new leaders to break Washington’s holding pattern on policy and to help the country.
Energy is among the most polarizing issues in Washington, dividing coal-staters from environmentalists and often stranding pragmatists in between. But Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) wrote a bill that avoids every major policy landmine, basing their proposal on the unassailable principle that the country should waste less energy.
The pair aim to close the so-called efficiency gap — the perhaps 10, 20 or 30 percent energy savings that can be had at no disadvantage to lifestyle or living standards. This is an obvious opportunity for a federal push to rationalize energy use, rather than negatively distort it, as Congress so often does. Among the senators’ ideas is establishing model national building codes that states could voluntarily adopt and setting aside money to help them do so. The bill would provide for worker training and offer rebates for purchasing energy-conserving motors and transformers. It would mandate that the federal government itself waste less energy — for example, by cutting the amount of power its data centers use.
This is a modest reform package. It could have been more creative, perhaps establishing a “Race to the Top”-like competition for states to improve the energy efficiency of their economies. We would have preferred it to be stronger, by, among other things, setting mandatory national building codes, since commercial and residential structures are responsible for nearly 40 percent of the country’s energy use. The bill doesn’t even touch on carbon pricing, the biggest single step Congress could take to help slow climate change.
In part because of its modesty, the Portman-Shaheen legislation was widely considered to be one of the few things the Senate would be able to agree on over the past year. Unfortunately, Senate leaders weren’t able to keep other, divisive energy issues from sabotaging the bill’s progress. Republicans wanted to add amendments that would have drawn Democratic opposition, if not a veto from President Obama. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) was willing to allow a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline, but Republicans were pushing for votes on much more, such as symbolic measures to undercut the Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Reid’s refusal to open the amendment process led several GOP co-sponsors to vote against their own bill.
The bill’s supporters remain determined to bring it back. Encouragingly, Mr. Portman on Wednesday talked up the possibility of the Senate considering it early next year. If Republican leaders are serious about governing over the next two years, they should bring up the Portman-Shaheen legislation and discourage poison pill amendments this time.
Other editorials in this occasional series are at wapo.st/beyondgridlock.
Read more about this topic: