Will House Democrats get BTU'd on climate change?

A House vote in 1993 laid the groundwork for an important upcoming House vote on climate change legislation.

In 1993 then-Vice President Gore led the Clinton Administration to propose increasing the taxation of energy. Called the “BTU tax,” the Administration proposed to tax the energy content of a fuel source, measured in British Thermal Units (BTUs).

Democrats were in the majority, and 218 of them voted for the bill containing the BTU tax. 38 House Democrats and all 175 House Republicans voted no.

The three vote margin of victory suggests that House Democratic leaders had to twist the arms of reluctant Democrat Members to vote aye. In this scenario, if you are a House Democrat who does not have a strong view on the substance but is nervous about the politics of voting for higher energy taxes, you would like the bill to pass (so that your leaders get what they want and stop pressuring you) without your vote (so that you don’t give your opponent back home an effective line of attack).

The Senate Democrats, who were in the majority, promptly dropped the BTU tax without a vote. They also made it clear they would not accept a BTU tax in the final conference report on the bill.

Those nervous House Democrats who had voted for the bill with the BTU tax had the worst of all worlds. They had cast a costly political vote for no policy benefit.

A phrase soon entered the legislative vernacular. Senate Democrats had “BTUd” House Democrats.


Fast forward to 2009.

The House is considering climate change legislation authored by a key subcommittee chairman, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA). House Republicans, along with important Democrats like Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), are vigorously opposing the bill, calling it a “cap-and-tax” bill that would raise energy costs.

All indications from the Senate are that legislation similar to the Markey bill is extremely unlikely to pass the Senate this year.Two important votes in the Senate budget resolution debate sent incredibly strong signals about the Senate’s intentions:

  • 67 Senators, including 26 Democrats, voted against creating fast-track reconciliation protections for a cap-and-trade bill, meaning that supporters would need 60 votes to pass a bill, rather than 51.
  • 54 Senators, including 13 Democrats, voted for an amendment that would allow any Senator to initiate a vote to block any climate change provision which “cause[s] significant job loss in manufacturing or coal-dependent U.S. regions such as the Midwest, Great Plains, or South.”

These votes suggest that there is not even a working majority in the Senate for an aggressive cap-and-trade bill. When an actual bill with measurable and visible costs is debated, I expect Senate support to be even weaker.

The conventional wisdom is that Speaker Pelosi will make the House vote on a version of the Markey bill. With 254 House Democrats, she has a wide margin (36 votes) to ensure passage, but she could easily have important House Democrats like Mr. Dingell making a similar case as House Republicans, that the bill should be opposed because of the higher energy costs for consumers.

Imagine that you are a House Democrat from a conservative, manufacturing-heavy, or coal-heavy district. Whether or not you privately agree with the substance of the bill, and no matter what your view is on the importance of climate change, you will be asked to cast a politically risky vote for a bill that looks certain not to make it to the President’s desk.

You might say to your leadership, “I am more than willing to vote for this bill if you tell me that we can get the policy benefit of a signed law.” But if the Senate is going to BTU us again, why should I have to take a political risk?”

A cap-and-trade bill is highly unlikely to make it to the President’s desk this year. Even so, this year’s votes will set the terms of debate for future legislative efforts, when there might be a higher probability of legislative success.

10 responses

  1. Pingback: AJ Colyer

  2. If Nancy Pelosi wants to force Democrats into voting on a politically risky bill, you won’t hear an objection from me. Cap-and trade won’t make it through to the President in 2010 because of midterm elections. I personally think the best opportunity for such legislation to pass was this year.

  3. I agree with Mary M, you won’t see a bill before 2010 — so much for ‘the urgent need for action.’ But I disagree that this year is the best chance for such legislation. The US Environmental Protection Agency has proposed that greenhouse gasses endanger public health. If they finalize this, which they probably will in the next two months, they will set in motion a train that has no brakes and will eventually force legislation. And I think the article in The Economist this week got it wrong, EPA’s action isn’t just about cars and it isn’t gonna take many, many years to bite. Want a harbinger of things to come? Start looking for the denial of permits for new or expanded coal-fired power plants in the next few months. The only other big fuel a utility can be confident about in the next few years is natural gas. But as a former Sec. of Energy once said, “Making electricity from natural gas is like washing your car in champagne.” Start popping the corks.

  4. But as a former Sec. of Energy once said, “Making electricity from natural gas is like washing your car in champagne.” Start popping the corks.

    It’s not that bad – the economics actually work out pretty well. But you do need a lot of natural-gas-driven power plants to make up for the lost coal plants.

    That said, if you are serious about slowing down CO2 emissions, stopping the growth of coal plants is a good idea. In an ideal world, what we’d do at this point is start replacing as much of the “steady-state” power produced by coal in this country with nuclear power plants (since that is what nuclear plants are good for – they produce a lot of electricity at a constant rate, and can’t really be adjusted up or down that well without a laborious process), then cover the up-and-down use with natural-gas plants (which can be started up quickly to meet spikes in demand), as well as regional opportunities for renewable energy (such as wind on the coasts, or solar in the Southwest).

    Alas, that will probably not happen.

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  6. Pingback: Media give massive cap-and-trade tax second billing | SmallGovTimes.com

  7. If we, as a species, are going to continue to live on this planet, we will have to figure out how to produce energy without killing us or the planet in the process. Fewer people would be a great start. Fewer people would be less of a strain on the planet as a whole.

    It is time for Americans to stop supporting over-population by reducing the tax deductions for children to 2. A cap on welfare payments for dependment children of 2 would be halpful also. Just as China has come up to and addressed the real problem facing their country, so must Americans. Two children per woman is a reasonable amount of population growth and is the real solution to the energy crunch, the education crisis and every single other problem we face not only as a nation but as a species on this planet.

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  10. Originally Posted By DangburrIf we, as a species, are going to continue to live on this planet, we will have to figure out how to produce energy without killing us or the planet in the process. Fewer people would be a great start. Fewer people would be less of a strain on the planet as a whole.

    It is time for Americans to stop supporting over-population by reducing the tax deductions for children to 2. A cap on welfare payments for dependment children of 2 would be halpful also. Just as China has come up to and addressed the real problem facing their country, so must Americans. Two children per woman is a reasonable amount of population growth and is the real solution to the energy crunch, the education crisis and every single other problem we face not only as a nation but as a species on this planet.

    Wow sound like an awesome plan. Hey maybe we can get Gates and Buffet to change their minds on Aids, cholera and immunization. More disease == less people, no?

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