The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s not just Manchin. Here’s why Congress struggles to pass climate bills.

These three deeper issues make it very hard to act on climate, specifically

Sen. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat from coal- and gas-rich West Virginia with a personal fortune tied to fossil fuel, is in a position to make or break legislation. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
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Congress and President Biden have struggled to enact the president’s ambitious climate change agenda, which aims to cut U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030. Many analysts and advocates have focused on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III’s power to block ever-shrinking versions of Democrats’ clean-energy proposals.

That’s understandable. Manchin (W.Va.) has been pivotal in stopping Democrats’ efforts. But there are other reasons congressional Democrats have had so much difficulty advancing Biden’s plans. Three structural factors — partisan challenges, events beyond Congress’s control and the difficult politics of addressing long-term problems — combine to thwart major action on the climate crisis.

Republican opposition is entrenched and well-funded

Given an evenly divided Senate, Democrats planned to advance the president’s climate agenda without having to rely on GOP votes. They could do so by simple majority vote using a special budget vehicle known as reconciliation; under federal budget law such measures cannot be filibustered. They had no other viable procedural choice: No Republicans supported Biden’s myriad proposals to reduce carbon emissions. But that meant getting every Democrat onboard.

Most Republicans in Congress have largely moved beyond denying that burning fossil fuels releases gases that warm the planet. House Republicans have introduced climate proposals that focus on bolstering all domestic energy production, both fossil fuels and renewables. More broadly, Republicans argue that the economic costs of transitioning to clean energy would be too steep, especially in states whose economies rely on producing fossil fuels.

Political scientist Leah Stokes has documented the deep roots of GOP opposition to legislative efforts to stem climate change. A nexus of what political scientists call vested interests — including well-funded conservative organizations, energy companies and utilities — have coordinated with Republican lawmakers to stall legislative action at state and federal levels.

Inevitable differences among Democrats

With no GOP support, Democrats can move forward only if they can unify their precarious majorities. Manchin’s opposition probably grows from his commitments to West Virginia’s fossil fuel industry, his personal financial ties to the coal industry and his state’s deep-red partisan cast. Not even concessions to bolster his state’s fossil fuel production kept Manchin at the bargaining table.

But Manchin’s differences from the rest of the caucus over what policies to endorse and how to pay for them are just the most noticeable; others have had disagreements, as well. Climate was part of a larger social policy package called Build Back Better that Democrats tried to pass this year, and it would have been paid for with higher taxes on top earners and corporations. A small group of House Democratic moderates were organizing to oppose those tax hikes, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) had earlier objected to proposals to restore taxes on certain individuals and corporations, which President Donald Trump and the GOP Congress had cut in 2017.

Here’s why Senate Democrats are so fractious. Given the small-state advantage in the Senate, Republicans today can control the Senate by winning races in red-leaning states. Not so for Democrats, who can get a majority only by winning seats in purple states like Arizona and Georgia as well as red states like Montana and West Virginia. Senators elected from those states are necessarily more moderate than those from deep-blue states like California or Massachusetts. That electoral reality means that any Senate Democratic majority includes highly diverse views, resulting almost inevitably in disagreements that make it hard for Democrats to advance the party’s agenda.

Why is Manchin such a thorn in the Democratic party's side? Let us count the reasons.

Time matters

Negotiations have worn on (and off) for more than a year. That leaves Democrats today with little time to reach a deal. Under federal budget law, at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, reconciliation measures turn into pumpkins: They lose their protection from a filibuster.

But time has tripped up Democrats in other equally important ways. Inflation has been rising steadily since Biden first detailed his climate plans in 2021, reaching its highest level in four decades this summer. Price increases for gas, food and rent have hit consumers hard and provoked the Federal Reserve to start hiking interest rates, slowing the economy and risking a bad recession. No surprise that Biden’s public approval has been sliding steadily since last summer, dampening his power to persuade reluctant lawmakers.

Slipping economic conditions have affected the mix of climate policies and tax hikes Manchin is willing to support. Some contend that he planned all along to scuttle any climate deal. True? Hard to say. But generally, research finds, lawmakers don’t come to Congress with a fixed set of policy views. Both policy proposals and lawmakers’ preferences are fluid, so building coalitions means arduously developing policies and positions that a majority — Manchin, Sinema and colleagues — will support. Manchin says he wants to see July’s inflation data before resuming negotiations. Most Democrats say time has run out and are pressing on with health-care provisions of the reconciliation bill.

For Democrats, trying to slow climate change is good politics

Legislating for the long term

Lawmakers often fail to see the political benefit of acting today on problems whose effects will largely plague future generations. Solutions to long-term problems often require Congress to impose costs today to secure benefits in the future. For instance, lawmakers might penalize fossil fuel production today to mitigate costs and damage inflicted by a warming planet in the future. Doing so runs counter to a basic reelection calculus: Give voters benefits today and defer costs to the future. Politicians after all can’t know whether future coalitions will subvert today’s policy compromises.

To their credit, climate policy advocates and congressional supporters proposed a broad array of policies that remixed the usual formula of costs and benefits. They have included benefits now for policies that will pay off later, including tax breaks for Americans who buy electric vehicles and rewards for electric utilities that adopt clean-energy sources. In theory, such policies make the transition to a clean-energy economy more politically palatable.

These and other clean-energy incentives remain on the table. But the chances that Democrats can seal a deal this year are slim. As the globe suffers from unprecedented fires, floods and record-breaking heat, the stakes could not be higher.

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