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Is it now or Never for US Climate Policy?

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By Joel B. Stronberg

· 14 min read

The closing 100 days of 2021 will be looked back on as among the most critical in the environmental history of the United States—rivalled only by those in the 1970s when the cornerstones of today’s environmental protections were laid.

Whether today’s policymakers will be deserving of applause or derision depends upon the outcomes in four highly partisan battles now taking place over the: $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill; $3.5 trillion budget resolution and the associated package of spending programs termed budget reconciliation; and raising the debt limit on the nation’s credit card.

Even before President Biden’s missteps in Afghanistan, the passage of his sweeping plan to confront climate change head-on was in doubt. Images of Afghanis desperately chasing airplanes down the tarmac in an attempt to flee Taliban rule are emboldening Republican politicians to oppose all parts of the Democrats’ domestic agenda in anticipation of their retaking one or both chambers of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections.

History is not on the side of a sitting president’s party keeping control of Congress. The Democrats’ ultra-thin majorities in the House (3 votes) and Senate (even split of 50/50), along with the internal party conflicts between moderates and progressives, add layers of uncertainty to an already problematic situation.

What unites Republicans is their basic opposition to the entirety of the Democratic agenda. What divides Democrats is how best to ensure future generations a habitable environment and a strong, sustainable economy.

Should the Democrats fail to enact the sweeping reforms needed to address the climate crisis within the next 100 days, national energy and environmental protection policies will remain resting on shifting political sands—at the mercy of presidents—well into the 2030s.

The following paragraphs describe the political hurdles to clear and chasms to cross in the remaining days of 2021 for President Biden’s once-in-a-generation climate plan to have any chance of passage.

Infrastructure bill

Following weeks of debate and posturing, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the roughly $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Heralded as a generational investment, the Senate’s action was perhaps most remarkable for its bipartisan support. Cross-aisle cooperation on Capitol Hill is hard to come by these days.

Although far short of the $2.2 trillion initially proposed by the President, the bill provides $550 billion in new federal spending and redirects $450 billion in funds that were previously appropriated but remain unobligated.

Much of the conflict between Republican and Democratic negotiators centers on the definition of infrastructure. Biden’s definition of infrastructure exceeds traditional shovel-ready grit-and-gravel projects like roads and bridges.

Instead, the legislation sent to Capitol Hill by the White House included such items as [solidifying] the infrastructure of our care economy by creating jobs and raising wages and benefits for essential home care workers.

The White House’s initial proposal contained significant climate-related measures like building, retrofitting, preserving more than two million homes and commercial buildings and modernizing our nation’s schools and childcare facilities to make them energy efficient.

Although the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate was heavy on traditional grit-and-gravel projects, it includes funding for less traditional ones. These include connecting rural communities to high-speed internet ($65 billion), improving railways ($66 billion), cleaning up abandoned mines and oil and gas wells ($21 billion), and for electric and low-emission school buses ($5 billion).

The Senate approved the infrastructure bill by a vote of 69 to 30. The 30 Republican senators opposing the bill did so primarily based on the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) estimate that it would add $256 billion to the national deficit over the next ten years. The bipartisan group that put the bill together calculated it to be revenue-neutral.

The House is primed and ready to take up the Senate’s infrastructure bill. It promises, however, to be a very contentious fight.

The fiercest fights over the infrastructure bill are shaping up to be within the Democratic caucus. The battles go beyond various substantive provisions of the proposed act, e.g., whether electric vehicle charging stations should be included in the infrastructure bill.

At issue are such parliamentary matters as the order in which the bills would be brought up for final passage by the House and Senate. To fully appreciate the political drama surrounding the consideration and enactment of the various bills, readers need to be ever mindful of the mistrust borne by hyper-partisanship.

Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) claims the House is not some cheap date and will do what it needs to concerning the legislation. The Congressman is chair of the powerful House Rules Committee through which bills have to travel on their way to the House floor for a vote.

House members—both moderate and progressive—are generally angry over the Senate’s disregard of legislation they’ve already written and, in some cases, passed. Their feelings on this run deep.

Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) has already scorched the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure negotiations before they’ve hardly begun. It’s reported that he’s expressed his hopes the talks will fail. Why?

DeFazio is the House Transportation Committee chair and the lead sponsor of HR 3684, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The $715 billion measure passed the House and now sits in the wings awaiting Senate action. Given that the Senate bill appropriates a meager $110 billion for transportation measures, it’s hardly surprising DeFazio finds it inferior to the bill passed by the House.

The Senate’s disregard of House actions is not all that’s troubling DeFazio and his liberal colleagues. Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and other progressives promise to sink the infrastructure bill should Senate Democrats not deliver on the reconciliation bill. Why?

Although House progressives recognize the infrastructure bill as a big and bold package of needed projects, they believe it wholly inadequate to the tasks at hand. According to DeFazio, the Senate package:

Unfortunately… falls short when it comes to addressing climate change like the existential threat it is, and the world’s scientists only reinforced the need for additional action in the IPCC’s latest alarming report. That is why I’m committed to continuing to fight for transformational funding and policies in the reconciliation process that will reduce carbon pollution from the transportation sector, support American manufacturing and ingenuity, and create infrastructure that is smarter, safer, and made to last.

The reconciliation bill is the vehicle for many of the aggressive climate-related provisions proposed by the President in his $2.2 trillion plan that couldn’t be brokered as part of the Senate bill. Other outcasts from the Biden bill include production and investment tax credits for solar, wind, and other clean technologies, as well as a national clean electric standard.

As I’ll explain in a moment, the reconciliation bill is much more than a catch-basin for discarded infrastructure provisions. It’s the vehicle Democrats need to make good on many of Biden’s election promises on climate, e.g., net-zero carbon emissions from the power sector, and crucial societal matters, e.g., expanded Medicare coverage.

Progressives are not the only members of the Democratic caucus who’ve issued an ultimatum in recent days about the infrastructure and budget bills. As reported by Roll Call, nine centrists have written a letter to Speaker Pelosi warning her they will not consider voting for a budget resolution until the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passes the House and is signed into law.

Pelosi is facing two opposing Democratic factions—either of which could deliver mortal blows to the leadership positions of both the Speaker and the President. Pelosi’s two predecessors, Ryan (R-WI) and Boehner (R-OH), were neutralized as effective leaders by a small ultra-conservative Republican faction they could not control—the House Freedom Caucus. Pelosi is facing a similar situation.

Up to this point, Madam Speaker has succeeded in keeping House Democrats all moving in a similar direction. What’s required now is having all caucus members moving along the same orderly paths.

The paths, in this case, are the passage of a stand-alone $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, the $3.5 trillion package of spending programs under budget reconciliation, and raising the debt limit on the nation’s credit card.

Budget resolution and reconciliation

The House and Senate have both approved the $3.5 trillion budget resolution. The resolution is vital for several reasons. Although non-binding, it is a clear statement of the majority party’s policy and program priorities. It illustrates those priorities in several ways, including how it divvies up the monies the government has to spend in the immediate fiscal year.

Higher priority items will naturally receive relatively greater budgetary support.  Greater can be defined as more than a program has previously received or compared to other expenditures in the category.

As important as the division of funds are the instructions that go along with them to the subject matter committees. The just-passed resolution directs a dozen committees in the Senate and 13 in the House to write what will amount to a $3.5 trillion package that would implement significant changes in health care, social, and climate policies.

For example, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will receive $198 billion of the total $3.5 trillion. The Committee is chaired by Joe Manchin (D-WV), a coal-state conservative.

According to a draft memorandum to Democratic senators, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee is being allocated $198 billion to be spent on the following:

  • Clean Electricity Payment Program;
  • Consumer rebates to weatherize and electrify homes;
  • Financing for domestic manufacturing of clean energy and auto supply chain technologies;
  • Federal procurement of energy-efficient materials;
  • Climate research;
  • Research infrastructure for DOE National Labs;
  • Hard Rock mining; and,
  • Department of Interior programs.

The Committee is receiving the third largest amount of program funds behind only the Committees on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions ($762.4 billion) and Banking Housing and Urban Affairs ($332 billion).

According to Roll Call, reconciliation instructions sent to the multiple House and Senate panels direct them to increase the deficit by $1.75 trillion. The higher deficit amounts are expected ultimately to be offset by changes to the tax codes and reductions in unspecified spending.

Under a regular order of business, subject matter committees would put together separate appropriations bills that would then be debated and acted upon by the full House and Senate—sometimes individually, at other times as part of a package. Differences between the bills would go to a conference committee to work out the kinks and then be sent back for final votes.

Decades of hyper-partisanship have changed all that—particularly on the Senate side of the Hill. Whereas both chambers need a simple majority to pass most legislation, the Senate can keep a bill from being brought to a vote through a filibuster.

A filibuster, sometimes called talking out a bill, is a tactic by which a senator refuses to relinquish the floor for a vote to take place. The title-holder for the longest spoken filibuster in US history goes to Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. An opponent of the Civil Rights Act, Thurmond spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Although the needed number of votes for cloture has dropped from the original two-thirds (66) to three-fifths (60), cloture is still challenging to achieve. Moreover, the days of senators continuously occupying the podium and their colleagues moving cots into the Old Senate chambers are over. Today, a senator need only say they intend to filibuster a particular bill for it to happen.

The way around a filibuster is through the budget reconciliation process. Created by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, reconciliation allows for expedited consideration of certain tax, spending, and debt-limit legislation. (Emphasis added)

The filibuster-proof procedure was used to pass President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill in March. The Republicans used the process to enact their 2017 tax cuts.

Most of the climate-related programs and policies that didn’t make it into the infrastructure bill and other non-climate-related campaign promises of the President will be packaged into a single reconciliation bill. The final tab will likely total between $1.5 and $3.5 trillion. However, the final say over what makes it into the reconciliation bill is left to the Senate Parliamentarian.

There is zero likelihood, at this point, that any Senate Republican will vote in favor of the reconciliation package—whatever its final cost. The same is likely to be the case in the House. At the end of the day, even those who voted in favor of Trump’s impeachment will stay true to their fiscal conservative Republican roots.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill has a reasonable chance of passage as a stand-alone proposition. New construction of roads, bridges, and repairs of railways and airports are long overdue across Republican and Democratic congressional districts. According to the World Economic Forum, the US is ranked 13th globally in terms of its infrastructure.  Singapore is ranked first and Austria tenth. The UK and the United Arab Emirates are eleventh and twelfth, respectively.

As job producers in a tenuous economic time and in competition with other nations all the time, members of Congress are hard-pressed to vote down any investments that keep the country both working and competitive in world markets. In any event, it’s a risk Democratic congressional leaders seem willing to take.

Timing is everything

Pelosi has consistently spoken of the reconciliation and infrastructure bills as a pair—with the infrastructure bill being voted on first. Early in the negotiations, Biden also spoke this way—going so far as to say he wouldn’t sign the infrastructure bill if the larger reconciliation package weren’t also given to him for signature.

The President pulled back from the contingency almost immediately to prove to Republican and Democratic moderates that his preference was for bipartisan action. Why is Biden concerned about Republican moderates?

As a stand-alone bill, infrastructure will need 60 votes to make it through the Senate. Assuming all 48 Democrats and the two independent senators, Sanders (VT) and King (ME), sing from the same songbook, the script, ten Republicans in the Senate will be needed for cloture on a filibuster to prevent a vote on the bill. It’s unlikely that all of the 19 Republican senators that voted for the Senate measure can be counted on to support the House amended bill—or even something close to it.

The House can pass the infrastructure bill with a party-line vote. However, it could go down to defeat should four or more Democrats vote no.

Pelosi, Schumer, and other leading congressional Democrats are confident there’s only one way to make good on their and Biden’s promises on climate, health care, and other societal priorities. By making the infrastructure bill essentially contingent on the passage of the much larger and meatier reconciliation.

But first, they must make a good-faith effort to find a bipartisan compromise. Collaboration has occurred with the infrastructure bill; unfortunately, a partisan wall has been hit on reconciliation

Debt ceiling

If all of this weren’t complicated enough, there’s the matter of the debt ceiling. Early in August, Treasury Secretary Yellen urged Congress to raise the national debt limit, which now stands at $28.5 trillion.

Raising the debt ceiling doesn’t cover new spending, e.g., the proposed infrastructure bill. It allows the Treasury to pay for things that have already been approved.

The majority of the debt to be covered pre-dates Biden’s being sworn in as president. According to Yellen, the failure to meet those obligations would cause irreparable harm to the US economy and the livelihoods of all Americans.

The Treasury Secretary has reminded US lawmakers that raising the ceiling and protecting the full faith and credit of the nation has always been a shared responsibility.

Notwithstanding all of this, 46 of the 50 Senate Republicans have signed a “pinky-finger-pledge” that they will not help their Democratic colleagues raise the debt ceiling. According to the ringleader, Ron Portman (R-WI): If Democrats threaten a default, it will only be because they refuse to vote for the debt ceiling increase necessitated by their own irresponsible spending.

The problem—Senator—is that most of those checks were written by the Trump administration. According to Reuters:

The national debt ballooned by almost 40% to nearly $28 trillion under former President Donald Trump, fueled by the passage of tax cuts in 2017 and a flood of spending in 2020 to counter the economic hit from the coronavirus pandemic.

The four senators who didn’t sign the letter were Susan Collins (ME), Lisa Murkowski (Ak), Richard Shelby (AL), and John Kennedy (LA). The problem is it takes 60 votes to raise the debt ceiling.

What happens if the 46 Republicans stand pat? The government closes down, and the nation defaults on its obligations. Will it happen? President Biden thinks not, but these days who knows.

The bottom-line

There’s no overstating the dire consequences of the federal failure to enact sweeping climate legislation before the end of 2021. Even assuming that everything goes Mother Nature’s way in the next 100 days, it will take three to five years just to put in place the necessary regulations covering things like a national clean electric standard and more strident forest management practices. Why?

Because when the legislative battles are over, the legal ones begin. Saving the planet from the worst consequences of Earth’s warming is not something that can be done by flipping a switch a minute before midnight.

The Democrats’ loss of either the House or Senate in 2022 means gridlock. The loss of the presidency and either chamber in Congress in 2024 means gridlock. The Democrats’ loss of both the White House and the Congress means further damage to a national environmental protection framework already weakened by the Trump presidency.

I don’t mean to bash Republicans out of hand. It’s just that most Republican lawmakers have been as unwilling to act on the urgency of climate science as they have on medical science these past 14 months. It could change, will it?

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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