The New York Times (implicitly) calls for no climate change law

The House passed the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill last Friday on a largely party-line 219-212 vote. The New York Times editorial board now urges the Senate both to strengthen and pass the House-passed bill. But the Senate is right of the House on climate, so the choice will be to strengthen or pass a bill. Senate passage would require “weakening” the bill from the standpoint of a cap-and-trade advocate. This legislative situation provides me with a great teaching opportunity about the hard choices of practical legislating.

As a reminder, there were two important Senate climate change votes in April on the Senate budget resolution:

  • 67 Senators, including 27 Democrats, voted against creating fast-track reconciliation protections for a cap-and-trade bill, meaning that supporters 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.”

The specifics of these amendments are less important than that Democrats split 27-28 (with 3 not voting) and 13-44 (with 1 not voting) on these amendments. (I am counting Independent Senators Lieberman and Sanders as Democrats.) This signals a deep split within the Senate Democratic caucus, rather than a few wayward moderates whom Senator Reid and the White House need to work. Most vote counters put solid Senate support for a carbon cap in the mid-40s. That is a long way from the 60 votes that advocates will need.

I believe the political popularity of cap-and-trade legislation has been overstated by advocates. It is easier to vote yes on the general question, “Do you want to do something bold to address climate change?” than on the specific question, “Do you support the House-passed bill, which would have the following specific costs [list the costs]?” To borrow a metaphor from a knowledgeable Senate insider (used in another context), “Everyone likes ice cream; not everyone likes rum raisin ice cream.” I expect some Democratic Senators will argue that they are open to pricing carbon but oppose this specific bill. And I believe they have strength in sufficient numbers to resist pressure from their leaders or the White House.

I think it is highly unlikely the Senate will pass any cap-and-trade bill before the end of 2010, but the only bill that would have a chance of passage would be one that would move in the opposite direction from that desired by the New York Times editorial page. The New York Times editorial board admits this:

The Senate will not be an easy sell. It has rejected less ambitious climate bills before. While 60 filibuster-proof votes are needed, only 45 Senators mostly Democrats, can be counted as yes or probably yes. There are 23 fence-sitters and very little Republican support.

If I am right, then cap-and-trade advocates inside and outside of government face a tradeoff: how much substance are they willing to sacrifice for the sake of legislative progress? The New York Times editorial board makes their judgment call:

Democratic leaders should nevertheless resist calls to weaken the targets on emissions reductions. The House bill is itself a compromise, and a weaker Senate bill could be worse than no bill at all.

They have left themselves wiggle room by writing “could be worse” rather than “would be worse,” but the clear lean is against sacrificing substance for legislative progress. You have to look hard to see it, but in legislative vernacular the New York Times editorial board is leaning toward having “an issue rather than a law.”

In a legislative body you never get everything you want. The strategic questions generally look like this:

  1. How much of our final goal can we get through the Congress and signed into law now? Three-fourths? Half? A quarter?
  2. If we get a signed law now that is [half] of our goal, does that make it easier or harder for us to get the rest of our goal in the future? You can argue, for instance, that getting a cap-and-trade mechanism in place is the hard part, and that once the mechanism is in place, it is relatively easier to pass new legislation in the future to tighten those caps. On the other hand, once a first bill is in place, the legislative momentum will be gone, and for at least several years it will be harder to generate new enthusiasm for a second bill that tightens the caps.
  3. Does our legislative hand get stronger or weaker over time? If you think political support for your position will strengthen over time, that maybe you should forego the bird now and wait for an improved future chance at two in the bush. If instead you think political support for your position will weaken over time, then you should grab whatever you can get now.

I offer here my positive analysis (how I think things are) of the legislative situation rather than my normative analysis (how I would like things to be). Unlike much of what I have posted on other topics, I can prove none of the following. Please consider this a well-informed set of guesses.

  1. I don’t think cap-and-trade advocates can get the Senate to pass any bill pricing carbon before the end of this Congress (December 2010). I just don’t see how they get to 60 votes, even if they were to substantially weaken the House-passed bill. They can get only a small portion of their goal now.
  2. If President Obama were to sign a “climate change bill” (as opposed to a bill pricing carbon) into law, momentum for a future carbon pricing bill would slow somewhat. So if a bill pricing carbon cannot pass the Senate, the President could instead almost certainly get a “clean energy” bill to his desk that increases mandated energy efficiency standards, maybe includes a “renewable electricity standard,” and spends a bunch of money on climate change R&D. But signing such a law would take some of the political goodies out of a future carbon cap bill, making it harder to pass. I think the President and his team have positioned themselves to be able to sign such a law and declare partial victory. The President almost never talks about “climate change” or “pricing carbon,” but instead about “clean energy technologies.”
  3. I am unclear about whether Senate support for a carbon pricing bill would be higher in 2011 and 2012 than it is now. There is no clear long-term trend. If I had to wager, I would offer 3:2 odds that there would be less Senate support for Waxman-Markey (or almost any specific carbon pricing bill) two to three years from now than there is today. Note that I am hypothesizing about support from Senators, rather than what public opinion polls might say. The two are related but not identical.

If my legislative analysis is correct, then cap-and-trade advocates are going to face a letdown. They will fail to get 60 votes in the Senate, and will then be forced to decide whether to enact a “climate change bill” without a carbon price. If they do, they further reduce their future chances of enacting carbon pricing legislation. Either way, I think (guess) that their chances decline over time.

In a future post I will explain my opposition to the House-passed bill. For now I challenge you to look on this as an exercise of legislative analysis and strategy rather than one of advocacy:

  • Whatever your view on what should happen, do you agree with my analysis of the legislative situation? If not, with which specific assumptions do you disagree, and why?
  • For those who support the House-passed bill: Suppose my analysis of the legislative environment is correct. Would you want a “climate change law” now (by 12/2010) that drops the carbon pricing mechanism, or would you rather wait and save those relatively easy provisions to package with a future legislative attempt at a carbon pricing law?

If this were an exercise for a class, I would dock points from anyone who responds by telling me why we should support or oppose the House-passed bill. That’s a question for another day and another post.

(photo credit: The old “cut the polar pear in half” trick! by ucumari)

13 thoughts on “The New York Times (implicitly) calls for no climate change law

  1. Pingback: Keith Hennessey On Waxman-Markey | But Then What

  2. chris

    Thanks for the post, Keith.

    I agree with your analysis, with the caveat that it may be wishful thinking on my part (since I am psychopathically opposed to this legislation–which is relevant to my confession of bias, so don’t dock points).

    Yet I still have this pang of angst, so I must be worried about something. I think it is the way all of these so-called Blue Dogs just rolled over and wagged their tails on the stimulus. “Tough Vote To Get” would mean something for someone principled like Joe Lieberman (who unfortunately is a member of Gore’s church); I have not seen that these other “moderate/conservative” Democrats are willing to be as frustrating to their own party as Specter once was and Snowe and Collins still are.

    As for strategy, I think people who are principled enough to vote for cap and trade because they believe in it will vote for it regardless of the political winds. That leaves the unprincipled, as it were, who will vote with the winds even thought they don’t care or believe much in the global warming epic. But if they are willing to vote yes when future winds are favorable, they are willing to vote no when present winds are unfavorable. The problem is present winds are decidedly mixed, with a distinct negative bent (given the recession and waffling public opinion), but not negative enough to make a “wind voter’s” choice obvious. My worry is that they will go with a popular president and take their chances with pork and spin, with the not inconsiderable bonus of having bragging rights about “Doing Something” in the future should they fail of re-election. But that “pork and spin” required to get them on board might be enough to gut the bill of carbon pricing. I just don’t know. I rationally think you’re analysis is sound, but my gut tells me to expect the worst (see, my bias shines).

    And I just find it ridiculous that all of these House Dems who were bought off to vote for the thing would be stupid enough to let them themselves get BTUd. Either they’re really that foolish, or they know something we don’t.

    Those are all just worries, though. What you say seems right.


  4. Steven Hales

    Forgetting for a moment about how the senate has voted in the past isn’t the main reason for differences in voting patterns between the Senate and the House just a matter of how much is at stake in a Senator’s vote vis a vis a Represenative’s vote? If true this makes the Senate the more deliberative body and by its very structure more conservative and resistant to change. But your irony of strengthing the bill to make it fail is delicious and I think plays upon the small “c” conservative nature of the Senate but it is a bit unfair to pick on the Times for a lack of perspicuity.

  5. Tara

    I think this analysis is very interesting, especially the point about passing a “clean energy” bill and declaring a partial victory. I think the one thing that has been left out of the political calculus is the EPA endangerment finding. The threat of EPA regulation of carbon in absence of Congressional legislation is one that might cause some votes to shift. Last week, an article from The Hill’s blog quoted Dingell discussing the bill and urging Congress to pass it because of just this issue. The article quoted Dingell saying:

    “If you want something to shudder at, I beg you to take a look at that,” Dingell said. “We will see better than 300 kinds of regulations coming from federal and state bodies.”


  6. Sean

    I disagree with 3. Seems as if there is a pretty strong correlation between oil/gas prices and support for anything surrounding energy, “green,” or global warming. At least there seems to have been a steep drop of in environmental momentum ever since gas prices dropped sharply. So if economic recovery over the next year or so leads to a return of uncomfortably high energy prices AND senators thought they would still be high when they were up for reelection, I suspect that leads to an increase in political support.

    Thanks for the blogging Keith – particularly the nuts and bolts policy making stuff that others frequently handwave past.

  7. Gavin Longmuir

    I don’t know anything about the Senatorial Sausage Factory — but I do know something about business decisions.

    What the “Cap on Trade” bill has done is sow great uncertainty, and it is very difficult to justify investments in an environment of uncertainty. But those investments are what is required to create jobs & generate tax revenue. We have not heard much about the trade deficit for a while, but “Cap on Trade” is a recipe for making it much worse. Tough for Democrats to position themselves as the party of the little guy while jobs are moving overseas to places which laugh at the very conceit of Goreism.

    It is possible that Democrats may find themselves wanting to take this monstrosity off the table pretty quickly if the economy continues to slide.

  8. Terry

    As someone who works in the renewable energy industry, I can tell you that implementing a Renewable Electric/Energy Standard (in which utilities are required to purchase a certain percentage of their power from specific sources) will be a vastly more expensive way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than carbon pricing would. I hope that if Congress decides to pursue greenhouse gas legislation, they opt for carbon pricing rather than picking technologies based on who has the best funded lobbyists.

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