Joe, in the end, has always been there. He’s always been with me.
I think we can work something out.
– President Biden
Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for the New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson the Great Society. What will Joe Biden be remembered for? It likely depends on the fate of two pieces of legislation that encompass nearly the entirety of his once-in-a-generation agenda, including infrastructure, climate, voter rights, higher taxes for the wealthy, equal justice for people of color and low incomes, healthcare, and greater assistance for low-income families and children.
Should Biden’s agenda emerge from Congress relatively unscathed, it will mark a generational change in how the federal government is viewed and what’s expected of it. It would be a change evocative of the New Deal and the Great Society.
Standing between President Biden and his date with history are a pace of conservative congressional Democrats—the most prominent of whom is West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (D).
Manchin is calling for a strategic pause in Democratic efforts to rush through a multi-trillion-dollar reconciliation bill to have it on the President’s desk within weeks. The climate-related provisions of the reconciliation bill, together with those in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure program passed by the Senate in August and awaiting House action, would be the most comprehensive package of integrated energy and environmental policies and programs in US history.
What does Manchin hope to accomplish by pausing the dash to reconciliation? In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, he explains:
Instead of rushing to spend trillions on new government programs and additional stimulus funding, Congress should hit a strategic pause on the budget-reconciliation legislation.
A pause is warranted because it will provide more clarity on the trajectory of the pandemic and…allow us to determine whether inflation is transitory or not...I believe that making budgetary decisions under artificial political deadlines never leads to good policy or sound decisions. (Emphasis added)
How long the pause should be is unclear. The Senator has been reported as saying until next year, without specifying exactly when next year.
Manchin’s inflation concerns are legitimate. The annual inflation rate in the US decreased from 3.2 percent in 2011 to 1.2 percent in 2020. In July 2021, the rate jumped to 5.4 percent.
Two causes of inflation are government spending and deficits. Both are on the rise. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, the federal government ran a deficit of $3.1 trillion in Fiscal Year 2020, more than triple the deficit for FY2019. This fiscal year’s cumulative deficit of $2.7 trillion as a share of GDP is the largest since 1945.
The possibility of inflation shouldn’t be an excuse not to act. Treasury Secretary Yellen, Wall Street economists, and the Federal Reserve Board anticipate that inflation will cool as temporary factors like supply chain issues and shortages of goods and labor subside.
Congressional Democrats, too, are mindful of the potential inflationary pressure attendant to Biden’s Build Back Better plan. House and Senate committees are looking at programs that might be cut or reduced in size to lower the nation’s monthly nut.
The House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees are looking to raise in the neighborhood of $2 trillion in new tax revenues. Higher tax rates for wealthy individuals and corporations are being targeted.
How high the new rates should be is a matter of some debate. The White House has asked for rate increases higher than congressional tax writers currently appear willing to go. Conservative Democrats in the Senate and members of the House Blue Dog Coalition are advising against new taxes in an election year.
On the surface, Manchin desire for a cooling off period is reasonable. After all, what’s a few more months, especially if in those months the $1.2 trillion infrastructure starts to be implemented? Moreover, isn’t Manchin right to seek bipartisan support for both the infrastructure and reconciliation bills?
Manchin’s doggedness in the pursuit of bipartisanship has already had the type of response he and other moderate Democrats—including President Biden—had hoped for and promised. Led by Senators Sinema (D-AZ) and Portman (R-OH), a bipartisan group of 21 senators—ten Democrats and eleven Republicans—put together the $1.2 trillion bill that passed the Senate by a vote of 69 to 31.
The negotiators are to be congratulated for coming up with a bipartisan bill. However, the actual proof of progress is whether the 19 Republican senators will still support the bill when a final vote is taken. All they’ve done so far is to support the Senate version. There’s anecdotal evidence suggesting that the 19 senators are now getting pushback from their Party and constituents.
To fully appreciate the position President Biden and congressional Democrats find themselves on climate matters, it’s helpful to compare what’s to be gained by a “strategic pause” with what might be lost.
In all honesty, I can’t think of anything of real value that’s to be gained by waiting—particularly in the case of climate change. Congressional Republicans will never sign on to Biden’s climate-change agenda—certainly not in an election year when they are hoping to retake either or both chambers of Congress.
So, what would be lost by waiting?
The first thing that would be lost is time. How much time is not simply the sum of days or weeks between now and when in 2022 Manchin might like to restart or finish the reconciliation debate. In fact, the answer isn’t numerical at all—unless it’s the number of Democrats to Republicans who will be sworn in as members of the 118th Congress in January 2023.
The second thing that has a high probability of being lost is the Democrats’ control of either or both chambers of Congress. As I’ve written before, history is not on the side of a president’s Party in terms of gaining or keeping congressional seats in a midterm election.
Say what you will about the Democrats. The reality is most Republicans don’t see or are unwilling to say that climate change is even a problem, let alone the greatest existential crisis facing the US and every other nation in the world.
We’re talking about a party that is willing to put personal opinion over scientific fact. A party increasingly populated by voters and leaders willing to give meaning to a lie. Not just any lie, mind you, but a lie that undermines our democracy and has been disproven based on physical evidence and rejected by tens of dozens of judges in every case that’s been filed in a state or federal court.
Former President Trump has made it quite clear in recent weeks that he is the face of the Republican Party and is willing to purge it of anyone who would refuse to kiss his ring. His impact on next year’s midterm election is being seen in places like Ohio’s 16th Congressional district, where he’s endorsed a primary challenger to the incumbent—Anthony Gonzalez.
Gonzalez had the audacity to vote to impeach Trump following the January 6 assault on the Capitol. Gonzalez has since thrown in the towel deciding it just wasn’t worth the abuse he would undoubtedly be subjected to from the Former President and the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Matt Gaetz. It should be noted that Greene has such a penchant for lying that she was stripped of her committee assignments by her own congressional caucus.
The other nine Republican votes to impeach are also in Trump’s sights. Notwithstanding who wins the fought-over nominations, Trump will continue to infuse chaos into the internal workings of the Party, making collaboration difficult.
The third thing that’s likely to be lost is unity within Democratic ranks—stress fractures are already very visible. It’s telling that both Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Schumer seem to be on the side of the progressives when it comes to climate policy.
For the two years following the 2018 elections, there was visible tension between the Speaker and progressives in her caucus. It was especially apparent in her dealings with the Squad. The group comprised of Representatives Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts.
During a press conference in 2019, a New York Times Reporter asked Pelosi about the Squad’s fury over the border aid package that passed the House with specific restrictions placed on how the Trump administration could spend the money. There was an evident edginess in Pelosi’s response:
All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.
Times have changed. Pelosi, in particular, appears much more intense when it comes to climate policy and the reconciliation and infrastructure bills. It’s as if she’s not sure there will be a tomorrow—at least a Democratic tomorrow on Capitol Hill.
House and Senate progressives have played well with their more moderate colleagues since 2018 and joined ranks around Biden once it was clear that Sanders wasn’t going to be nominated. It’s earned them Pelosi’s respect—as well as Schumer’s and the President’s.
Tensions between Manchin and Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) have been seen in recent Twitter feeds and Sunday talk shows. On September 2nd, in response to Manchin’s announcement that he would oppose the $3.5 trillion price tag on the reconciliation package, AOC posted:
Although Manchin denies the allegation, a lobbyist for Exxon Mobil was caught on undercover footage saying he speaks with Manchin’s office weekly.
Manchin is on record opposed to continuing production and investment tax credits for clean energy sources like solar and wind. He claims that they are now competitive in many places and don’t need any assistance.
Although Manchin is right about the competitiveness of solar and wind, the reason for continuing the credits is no longer just about helping them to get a foothold in the private marketplace. These days the objective is to reduce the use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible to slow the rate of Earth’s warming and its consequences.
Manchin is hardly perceived as a neutral mediator when it comes to energy sources. The Senator receives more campaign contributions from coal, oil, and gas interests than any other senator, according to Open Secrets, a research organization that follows the money in politics.
Coral Davenport, a highly respected journalist on energy and environment issues, reports that
Manchin profits personally from polluting industries: He owns stock valued at between $1 million and $5 million in Enersystems Inc., a coal brokerage firm which he founded in 1988. He gave control of the firm to his son, Joseph, after he was elected West Virginia secretary of state in 2000.
“Last year, Mr. Manchin made $491,949 in dividends from his Enersystems stock, according to his Senate financial disclosure report.”
Let me be clear. No one is accusing Mr. Manchin of anything improper. However, being the only Democrat elected to high office in a coal state who shows little understanding of the urgency of responding to Earth’s warming by swapping out fossil fuels for available clean alternatives doesn’t exactly commend to be the poster boy for sustainability.
Then there was his campaign ad in 2010 where he’s seen shooting a rifle bullet into a copy of HR 2454, the cap-and-trade bill popularly known as the Waxman-Markey. The bill passed the House. However, it was never brought to the Senate floor for a vote, even though the Senate was under Democratic control at the time.
It’s likely Speaker Pelosi remembers what happened the last time she trusted the Senate to pass critical climate legislation. Its memory undoubtedly plays into her current congressional strategy of tying the infrastructure and reconciliation bills together as a package—using one to lever the other.
The fourth, and perhaps greatest, loss should the President’s climate plan not be put into force are the significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that would result.
Passage of the reconciliation bill’s current climate-related provisions proposed by President Biden and favored by congressional progressives like Representative Jayapal (D-WA) and Senator Bernie Sanders is critical to defending against Earth’s warming and as an example to other nations. An analysis released by Senate Majority Leader Schumer estimates that climate-related provisions, of the proposed reconciliation bill would reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030. (See Figure 1)
Time has never been more of the essence.
The bottom line
The next 60 to 90 days promise to be among the most contentious on record. Yes, things can get worse.
The end of the current federal fiscal year is a week away, and the debt ceiling needs to be raised. Senate Minority Leader McConnell (R-KY) is giving every indication that he’s asking his caucus members not to cooperate with the Democrats—something that even the Democrats didn’t do during the Trump administration when it came to preserving the nation’s credit rating and keeping the government going.
If ever there was a time for the Democrats to circle their wagons and act in a unified manner, it’s now. Holding the needed climate-related elements of the reconciliation package hostage to bipartisan discussions in a congressional election year is to toss them away.
Manchin, Sinema, and other conservative Democrats have to know this. It’s time for them to take loosen their grip on Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Schumer. Let’s leave the niceties of bipartisanship action at the door for at least a little while longer. After two decades of hyper-partisanship, can another few months really matter?
Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
Joel B. Stronberg is a recognized thought leader in the fields of climate and clean energy. A senior executive and attorney, he is the founder and principal of The JBS Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm. Joel is currently advising the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project at Columbia University’s Sabin Center along with his other clients. Joel is a featured voice on Resilience.org, a Top Climate Change Writer on Medium.com, and a highlighted opinion writer on Energy Central.