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Exit Stage Left: What Might It Mean for US Climate Policy

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By Joel B. Stronberg

· 7 min read

Time is not our friend here. We need to agree to what we can agree to, recognize that there are going to be some things some of us think would be really good ideasthat are not going to make it in.
- Senator Tina Smith (D-MN)

Staffers are to politicians as canaries are to coal miners. When they stop singing, there’s a problem. Key Biden staffers are beginning to leave the administration.

In January, Cecelia Martinez left her post as the senior director for environmental justice at the Council on Environmental Quality. Martinez has largely been credited with shaping much of Biden’s environmental justice (EJ) aspirations.

Replacing Martinez is Jalonne L. White-Newsome, an academic who has worked in government and with grassroots activists. The administration has been called out on its lack of progress on EJ matters. In partial re-sponse, the White House has dedicated the week of May 22nd to EJ action.

Among EJ week activities was the unveiling of a new EJ portal. In its defense, an administration official admitted EJ isn’t something that is going to happen overnight — nor, it seems, in the 530+ nights Biden has been president.

Gina McCarthy, who served in the Obama administration as the head of EPA and is now Biden’s climate czar, has been rumored in recent weeks to be leaving. Others will be following suit in the coming months.

Also exiting the White House are Cedric Richmond and Jen Psaki. Early in her White House positing, Psaki announced she was only signing up for a year’s tour. Richmond is a close ally of the President and headed up the Office of Public Engagement. He’s said to be leaving to take on a new job as an advisor to the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Vice President Harris has been losing staff over the last six months. Harris’ latest loss is Tina Flournoy, her chief of staff.

Think of staff departures as going from thrall to pall. Hey, no captains they. It’s hard to blame them for jumping ship to seek steady sustenance elsewhere. They have families to feed, and association with a failed administration doesn’t make that any easier.

Let me be clear: there are many reasons staff leave; e.g., money, inter-ference with family life, illness, or conflicts with other staff. Still, there’s a pattern here.

The lament if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog is hardly fanciful. It’s been etched on the political tombstones of the many who failed to heed its message. Truth be known, I wouldn’t get too comfortable with the dog either.

I’ll grant you that Joe Biden could be getting a lot more done — but for the opposition of the other Joe — that’s right, Joe Manchin (D-WV). We’ll see what happens in the next month or two. Manchin has intimated, even suggested, that he would be open to legislation that at least extended tax credits for solar, wind, and carbon capture.

Whether these policies are put forward in a stand-alone bill or as part of some reconciliation package is unknown. It will become clearer between now and the first week or two in June.

A lot can change between now and 2024 — some good, some not so good. Then there’s just the scary possibility of a random catastrophe.

Saying today’s politics are contentious is a preposterous understatement. The divide between Republicans and Democrats is the greatest in the last fifty-plus years. According to Trump, it’s perhaps a schism last experienced a century and a half ago.

The Taxed Enough Already (TEA) Party gave form to the growing numbers of right-wing populists within the Republican ranks in Congress. Although organizational influence has declined since its victories in the 2012 elections, the conservative ethos continues to thrive within individuals like former President Trump, Senators Cruz (R-TX), Scott (R-FL), and Paul (R-KY).

On the House side, the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) has carried the load of conservative right-wing populists. With fewer than 40 members, the Caucus managed to hound two House Speakers — Boehner (R-OH) and Ryan (R-WI) — into retirement and has been responsible for shuttering the federal government by blocking required spending legislation if increased the deficit.

I’ve characterized the HFC before as an example of the tail wagging the dog. Should the anticipated Republican 2022 landslide victory materialize, the tail motion will be more wrenching than wagging.

One race I’m confident Trump doesn’t mind ceding to Obama and Biden is the number of losses a party of the president suffers in their first mid-term trial. Obama holds the modern-day record for the largest number of lost seats at 63 (net) in the 2010 elections.

Eighty-seven new Republicans were elected to the House in 2010 — the most sweeping repudiation of a president and his political party in generations. This year, Obama’s record is in jeopardy of falling to his Vice President.

As scarce as cooperation is on Capitol Hill is the time left for the Democrats to push through legislation needed to invest in their priorities; e.g., combatting and adapting to climate change and EJ. The odds of any major energy bill coming out of Congress inside or outside a reconciliation package grow longer every day.

Manchin believes — at least he’s stated — that there remains an opportunity to pass clean energy tax extenders. It would appear that Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) shares the coal-state Senator’s guarded opinion.

If the senators know what would be in some energy and environment bill, they’re not talking about it. Smith is even suggesting that no one should be talking publicly about it either:

“Sometimes, less attention paid to all of that, the better, but I will just say to everyone listening in that … I’m very optimistic that we can reach agreement here.”

There’s a lesson in all of this.

I suspect that the Minnesota Senator’s caution about loose lips and sinking ships has a lot to do with Senator Manchin’s testiness at being demonstrated against by kayakers circling his yacht, The Almost Heaven — his home away from home — and on Capitol City streets.

As an aside, activists need to better gauge lawmakers and how they’re likely to respond to various forms of communication. It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to figure out that Manchin would be more angry than moved by activists in his personal space.

The only thing such aggressive demonstrations accomplish in Manchin’s case is to add a modicum of pleasure to his doing what he was/is already going to do. The same is true of Sinema.

What’s the take away when a president of the same party and 48 other senators couldn’t move Senators Manchin or Sinema?

Neither Manchin nor Sinema is up for re-election in 2024, so it is difficult to pressure them with a primary challenger. Although Manchin’s senate seat is secure, Sinema has been censured by the Arizona state Democratic Party. However, as I’ve said, a lot can happen between now and 2024.

There are better ways to pressure lawmakers. It may be hackneyed to say, but the phrase follow the money is still good advice. You could always move to their district. It’s hard to ignore constituent voters.

There’s another lesson in all of this.

Senator Smith is cautioning — perhaps the better word is preparing — the climate community that any energy and environment legislation is going to include what Manchin wants for the fossil fuel industry. The reality is the community needs to make its peace with this — at least until the Democrats control the Senate by more than two votes and maintain their House majority.

Minimally, the coal-state senator is going to want support for efforts to capture, sequester, and possibly use carbon. He’ll also be looking to get assurances that leasing oil and gas reserves on federal lands will continue, and certain assurances about not penalizing pipelines if they are not able to build infrastructure to trap the potent greenhouse gas.

In the end what can I say about any of this other than — Welcome to Washington and would you be interested in buying a puppy?

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.

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About the author

Joel B. Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney and 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.

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