One week after House Democrats triumphed in the election, Rep. Nancy Pelosi extended her hand to the party’s energized left wing by reiterating a campaign pledge: She would revive the select committee on climate change.
The move thrilled activists who, joined by incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, had protested in Pelosi’s office that day. And word of reconstituting the panel, which was revered among Democrats for helping produce the 2009 cap-and-trade bill, was greeted as a sign of the party’s commitment to aggressive climate action in the next Congress.
But the committee will not have authority to approve legislation and is not expected to have subpoena power — unlike its 2007 version. The committee’s influence will be limited by Republican control of the Senate and President Trump’s rejection of climate science. While Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has called on the committee to draft a “Green New Deal” to get the country off fossil fuels by 2030, its work may not carry weight with the powerful standing committees in the House.
The coming battle will test liberals’ clout, as tensions between the activist left and the Democratic establishment underscore the ideological and strategic rifts that will affect the party ahead of the 2020 presidential primary.
“We should have a robust debate of ideas . . . then we figure out how to come to a consensus so that we are effective and are able in 2020 to defeat Donald Trump,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “The worst thing we could do is stifle a very vigorous debate because of a deference to protocol or precedent.”
Congressional Democrats are united on the need to combat man-made climate change, but there is debate over what solutions to pursue and how aggressively in an era of divided government.
Pelosi (D-Calif.), poised to become the next House speaker, and other party leaders have talked about addressing climate change as part of an infrastructure reform package that could earn backing from Trump; liberals want nothing less than the Green New Deal, a restructuring of the economy often compared to the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II.
Support for the Green New Deal is showing signs of becoming a liberal litmus test among Democrats who may run for president. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) recently endorsed it, joining Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Rising support for this approach could shape the work of the House’s climate panel. Nearly 40 House Democrats agree that the committee should focus its efforts on making the Green New Deal a reality. A proposal from Ocasio-Cortez and the youth-driven Sunrise Movement sets a March 2020 deadline for the panel to come up with legislation.
Pelosi announced on Friday that Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), a longtime ally of environmentalists, will lead the select panel.
“She will bring great experience, energy and urgency to the existential threat of the climate crisis,” Pelosi said in a statement. “This committee will be critical to the entire Congress’s mission to respond to the urgency of this threat, while creating the good-paying, green jobs of the future. “
Castor is not a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. On advocates for the Green New Deal, she told E&E News: “I think they have some terrific ideas . . . but that’s not going to be our sole focus.”
Climate activists expressed disappointment.
“Without a mandate to create a plan and a requirement that its members don’t take fossil fuel money, we are deeply concerned that this committee will be just another of the many committees we’ve seen failing our generation our entire lives,” said Varshini Prakash, the Sunrise Movement’s spokeswoman.
The push reflects the increasing power and visibility of liberals on Capitol Hill. Poised to be the largest of the values-based caucuses next year, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has already received a jolt of energy from members such as Ocasio-Cortez, whose political celebrity and regular posts to her 1.1 million Instagram followers have earned her clout and attention unheard of for an incoming member of Congress.
A number of lawmakers, including Khanna and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who co-chairs the caucus, have said they encouraged Ocasio-Cortez to seek a leadership position on the select panel.
Major overhaul bills are typically the work of standing committees, which are a mainstay of the legislative process and have the knowledge and strategic expertise that new panels sometimes lack. Climate activists have said they have been dealt a setback on that front, after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who is a strong proponent of the coal industry, won the party’s top spot on the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Unlike other soon-to-be standing committee chairmen, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said he “didn’t have a great deal of angst” about the climate panel.
“It’s another platform to really talk about climate change and really enter it back into the dialogue for this country,” said Grijalva, who will lead the House Natural Resources Committee in January. He said he expects the standing committees that work on environmental issues to coordinate their efforts. He said he hopes that at least one member of his panel will also serve in the climate group as a “linkage.”
The committees have still moved to defend their turf on climate issues.
After Pelosi said she would resurrect the select panel, Grijalva joined incoming chairmen on the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee to announce they will hold two days of climate hearings in early 2019.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), who will lead Energy and Commerce in January, has also announced plans to investigate the Trump administration’s sweeping rollback of environmental regulations.
Asked about the climate panel, Pallone has pushed back on the notion that the standing committees would take a more deferential approach.
“I don’t want to prejudge what we are going to do other than to say that we intend to be very aggressive about it and the progressives will be very happy,” he said last month on Capitol Hill.
But the New Jersey Democrat has not backed the Green New Deal.
“The goal of trying to reduce fossil fuels and get to a carbon-neutral economy is important and something that I agree with. The question is how long it takes to do that,” he said recently, according to the Asbury Park Press. “The Green New Deal says you can do it in 10 years. I don’t know if that’s technologically feasible . . . Beyond that, it’s probably not politically feasible.”
Critics of standing committees argue that they can be easily distracted from ambitious work and may be more susceptible to influence from lobbyists.
Howie Klein, the founder of Blue America PAC — one of few PACs that donated to Ocasio-Cortez before her primary win — warned that Democrats who run the committees know how to silo off the left.
“I believe that Pelosi wants to do this — I really do,” Klein said of aggressive climate action. “But most of these guys want the gigs to raise money.” The back-and-forth recalls 2007, when Pelosi created the original climate panel and appointed now-Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) as chairman. With Democrats in control of the House and Senate, that panel had clout from the beginning, working to lay the foundation for legislation that could pass both chambers within two years.
Suspicious leaders of the standing committees worked to limit its legislative powers.
“We should probably name it the committee on world travel and junkets,” then-Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who was chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in 2007. “We’re just empowering a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs to go around and make speeches and make commitments that will be very difficult to honor.”
The panel contributed work to major legislation, including the cap-and-trade bill, which mandated an 83 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The measure was approved by the House but never passed the Senate.
The latest climate science points to the high stakes facing today’s lawmakers.
In October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that “unprecedented” international efforts to cut carbon emissions are required in the next dozen years to keep climate change to moderate levels.
The Trump administration has taken the opposite approach, cutting regulation even while forecasting a disastrous 7-degree rise in global temperatures by the end of this century. Trump administration officials have promoted fossil fuels on the international stage while Trump himself has expressed doubts that human activity has contributed to warming temperatures.
“A lot of people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers,” Trump said in November. “As to whether it’s man-made and whether the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it.”
The limitations of the select committee are already coming into focus, including its expected lack of subpoena power.
Prakash called this an “insult to the thousands of young people across the country who have been calling on the Democratic Party leadership to have the courage to stand up to fossil fuel billionaires.”
“The Democratic Party establishment never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” she said.
But Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who served on the original committee, said it was a worthy project despite its lack of legislative authority.
“It engaged the passions and creativity of legislators, some of who might be on the standing committees,” Inslee said. “It gave us room to try out creative ideas. I think it sharpened our pencils; it was additive, not duplicative.”
Jayapal said she worked alongside fellow caucus co-chairman Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) to convince activists not to demand that the standing committees yield legislative power on climate change.
“We’re finally in a position where progressives have committee chairs,” she said. “We don’t want to take away that ability to pass legislation.”
Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni contributed to this report.