Today’s Politics Are Tomorrow’s Climate Policies (part 2)
Part 1 of the series, Today’s Politics Are Tomorrow’s Climate Policies, focused on the politics of the 2022 midterm elections surrounding the US Senate. Control of the Senate is still something of a 50/50 proposition, although in recent weeks there’s been a shift of momentum towards the Republicans.
Whatever the outcome of the Senate elections, the upper chamber will be a moderating influence on a Republican controlled House of Representatives. More Trump-centric than the Senate, the House under the leadership of Kevin McCarthy will be ground-zero in the continuing culture wars.
Throughout the 2022 election cycle, it’s been predicted that the US House of Representatives would flip from Democratic to Republican. For that to happen, Republicans will need to gain a net of just five seats
Although Republican control of the peoples’ House is still anticipated, the margin of victory has been coming down since mid-summer, when a blowout was predicted. The catalyst for the change was the US Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS) decision in Dobbs v. Jackson that overturned a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, as established by Roe v. Wade.
There’s growing evidence that the abortion issue is not what most voters have at the top of their priority lists. The top spots are, unsurprisingly, the economy and inflation. President Biden has called the economy “strong as hell.” While eating an ice cream cone, Biden expressed what he’s worried about--
“I’m not concerned about the strength of the dollar; I’m concerned about the rest of the world. Does that make sense?
As I’ll discuss further in a moment, those words may come back to haunt Biden once the gavel comes down to call the 118thCongress into session.
FiveThirtyEight predicts the chances of the Republicans capturing the House are 72 out of 100. Adding fuel to the prediction is a recent New York Times/Siena College poll that found 49 percent of likely voters in congressional races were planning to cast their ballots for Republicans. Support for Democrats came in at 45 percent. It marks a significant change from the month before.
The Democrats held a one-point advantage in September’s generic poll over the GOP. According to Larry Sabado at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, when Republicans lead on the generic ballot, they almost always win control of the peoples’ House. The question is whether such history will repeat itself in 2022.
A Republican House majority is not simply about gross numbers. It is also about individual political philosophies and loyalties. In an age of very slim majorities, a relatively small group of members can have an outsized impact on what does and doesn’t get passed into law.
A Republican group that has enjoyed such a position is the House Freedom Caucus (HFC). The Caucus has had a stranglehold on the lower chamber for years.
HFC doesn’t list its membership, although it is fair to say that the group hasn’t exceeded 70 members at its acme. Whatever the number, the HFC has consistently punched well above its weight.
The group has chased two former House speakers—John Boehner and Paul Ryan—out of Congress. Both men are establishment Republicans in the mold of Ronald Reagan. Neither is a supporter of former president Trump.
However, who is a supporter of the ultra-conservative agenda, is the current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). He served as House Majority Leader[i] under both Boehner and Ryan. He is currently the House Minority Leader and is in the best position to become Speaker of the House.
McCarthy has spent the last five or six years trying to convince Donald Trump of his loyalty and ability to perform as the ex-president’s avenging angel. Unlike Senate Minority McConnell, the Californian has shown what he stands for and the agenda he intends to promote in the 118th Congress.
“I think I can win [the speakership] with any seat majority.”
At the end of September, McCarthy released his Commitment to America. It’s a play on Newt Gingrich’s Contract to America. (See image[ii])
The Commitment speaks in generalities combining traditional Republican themes, e.g., increasing domestic oil and gas production, with more extreme positions. Under the heading, A Government That’s Accountable, is the commitment of House Republicans to uphold free speech and protect the lives of unborn children and their mothers.
Based on things he’s said before, the meaning of these words come to life. McCarthy has shown support for a national ban on abortion at 15 weeks. Abortion isn’t all that’s included under the heading Preserve Our Constitutional Freedoms.
McCarthy’s promise to uphold free speech means there should be no restrictions placed on the former president’s use of Twitter and other social media websites. True or not, the Minority Leader sees no reason to cancel Trump—or, for that matter, any other Republican no matter how outlandish or harmful a statement may be. One wonders whether McCarthy thinks it’s alright to yell “fire” in a crowded theater.
The Minority Leader showed what’s likely in store for members of his caucus who fail to follow the Trump-party line. Consider the fate of the ten Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the January 6th insurrection.
Of the ten, only two, Dan Newhouse (R-CA) and David Valadao (R-WA), have a chance to be re-elected. Four chose to retire, and four lost to largely Trump-backed challengers.
A special place in Republican hell was reserved for Liz Cheney (R-WY). Immediately after the impeachment vote, Cheney was stripped of her leadership position.
Cheney was replaced by Elise Stefanik (R-NY)—who has now predicted a Republican pickup of 35 House seats. Stefanik stands as an example of the willingness of some Republicans to put their loyalty to Trump above all.
The New York representative went from being a moderate to a Trumpster overnight. Peter Wehner of the faith-based Trinity Forum writes:
There was a time in 2016 when Elise Stefanik, now the third-ranking Republican in the House, was so disgusted by Donald Trump she would barely mention his name. Today he proudly refers to her as ‘one of my killers’.”
As Chair of the House Republican Caucus, Stefanik wields significant power. She has performed so well—in fact—that she’s being talked about as a possible vice-presidential candidate should Trump run again.
Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), another fallen RINO[iii] and one of the two Republicans on the House January 6th Committee, predicts that a Republican House majority would demand an impeachment vote on President Biden weekly. Although a bit extreme, what is likely is McCarthy’s appointing a seemingly endless train of oversight committees to investigate everything and anything—including on the President’s son Hunter Biden.
Emblematic of McCarthy’s willingness to court Trump’s favor is his embrace of Representatives Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). Both are off the far-right scale and have been frequent and prominent Mar-a-Lago visitors.
Following the assault on the Capitol, Gaetz blamed Democratic rhetoric and anti-fascists pretending to be Trump supporters.
“The people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters. They were masquerading as Trump supporters. And in fact, they were members of the violent terrorist group, Antifa.”
Greene has been stripped of her committee assignments for things she’s said—particularly as a primetime speaker at a white supremacist meeting.
Not for the first time, Greene has warned McCarthy that he’s no shoo-in for House Speaker. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Greene was quoted as saying:
“I think that to be the best speaker of the House and to please the base, he’s going to give me a lot of power and a lot of leeway,”
Greene claimed she wasn’t saying that as a threat. It was, in her terms, just the “reality of it all.”
There are three likely congressional outcomes in the 2022 midterm election cycle.
- Republicans take both the House and Senate
- Democrats maintain a narrow Senate majority while Republicans capture the House
- Democrats keep their majorities in both the House and Senate.
No matter which of these comes to pass, the historic Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure framework are more or less safe in the halls of the next Congress—although they may not be in the passageways of the Supreme Court.
The real threats to the environment over the next two years will come in the form of Republican pressure on the White House to expand significantly domestic oil and gas production. Moves will be pitched as a way to offset the high cost of gasoline and as a way to help western allies in their efforts to wean themselves off of Russian resources.
A Republican House majority while Biden is in the White House—no matter the outcome of the Senate elections—guarantees gridlock and brinksmanship. The question in a Republican House is how much of the majority’s time will be spent on payback investigations versus the passage of substantive legislation.
Trump will continue to refer to the Green New Deal as a shorthand for SOCIALISM. The more often he mentions it, the less likely it will be that climate policy is anything more than a Republican whipping post. Although such hyperpartisanship will please Trump, it risks losing younger Republican voters in future elections.
Even with Republican victories in the House and Senate, Trump Republicans will be hard-pressed to put their substantive agenda—whatever it might be—into play as anything other than messaging. As long as McConnell continues to be at the top of the Senate Republican heap and there are Democrats ready to filibuster, very little of a Trump-approved platform will ever find its way onto the chamber’s floor for a vote.
Under any scenario in which Republicans have majority status, efforts by Democrats to pass substantive climate legislation are also likely to end up as messaging exercises. It’s not hard to imagine that subject matter committee chairs under a McCarthy regime won’t be encouraged to hold hearings that question the reliability of scientific data and the conclusions drawn from it.
Under any of the three scenarios, Biden will continue to exercise his executive powers to combat Earth’s warming and expedite the nation’s transition to a low-carbon economy. Whether those actions have any staying power beyond Biden’s first term will depend on the 2024 presidential elections.
Realistically speaking, lasting progress on climate matters at the federal level is possible only under the third scenario—the Democrats maintaining control of Congress. There are caveats to this conclusion to consider.
Senator Manchin (D-WV) has been the goat and champion of climate policy over the past two years. Should the Democrat’s Senate majority continue to be contingent on all 50 Democrats voting together, any new legislation is unlikely to be enacted—at least until he gets his way on streamlining the permitting of fossil fuel and energy projects.
The victim most threatened in the coming elections is bipartisanship. Even if Trump announced he wasn’t running again, his successor would try to out-trump Trump to capture his base.
The 2022 midterm elections will be a time of learning. All eyes will be on the win rate of Trump-endorsed candidates. Will character and truth be valued above party loyalty? Are Republicans any more capable of corralling inflation and restarting the economy once the Fed is through tightening?
The 118th Senate—whether under Democratic or Republican control—will serve as a tempering agent to a Trump-centric House. For as long as he is the mix, the former president will keep pressure on McCarthy through messages on his Twitter alternative—Truth Social—and by triggering supporters like Representatives Greene and Gaetz.
It’s fortunate for the nation’s environment that Congress passed the infrastructure and jobs act, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), and the CHIPS and Science Act before the elections. It’s unlikely such seminal legislation could ever make it through a Republican-controlled House.
Politics at the state and local levels will ultimately determine how and even if the IRA, IIJA and CHIPS will be implemented. It’s the focus of Part 3 in the series Today’s Politics Are Tomorrow’s Climate Policies.
[i] The position of House Majority Leader is number 2 on the leadership chain.
[ii] Note that the image is only a partial representation of the Commitment.
[iii] Republican in Name Only
Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the authors
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.