Climate Bill's Delay May Be A Good Thing

As Charles mentioned, the the long-awaited Kerry-Graham-Lieberman (KGL) energy and climate bill will NOT be unveiled on Monday as expected. Now that Harry Reid plans to move immigration legislation first, Graham is threatening to walk and Kerry has put the bill on hold. With the midterms looming, putting immigration first already virtually assured that climate legislation wouldn’t move this year; Graham’s stunt all but guarantees it.

I’m shocked to hear myself saying this, but: good.

I’ve spent the past year pushing hard for this bill both on MyDD and in my professional life, but over the past few days I have come to believe that a delay might actually be a good thing. That belief may run counter to conventional wisdom – Kerry said this year is the “last and best shot” for passing a bill and Politico’s tone echoes that sentiment – but KGL has deteriorated so much that waiting for a better bill after next January’s filibuster reform might actually be worth it. Once the rules for the next Congress are written, we may be able to get not just a stronger bill but an infinitely stronger bill than what could pass now.

Generally in politics I’m a fan of an incremental, something-is-better-than-nothing approach, and I started out that way on KGL. I hate to say it, but tipping point or not, the goal isn’t to write perfect legislation but to write passable legislation. To this end I was willing to swallow the KGL oil give-aways in exchange for the first carbon price in history and new subsidies for clean energy.

On Friday, however, it was reported that the bill would remove “the states' authority to set tougher emissions standards than the federal government.” And that’s beyond even the most pragmatic pale. So much of current federal energy and environmental laws originated with the states, particularly California. Banning the states from taking tougher action than the federal government would by itself turn this bill from a first step to a last step. It would stymie innovation and destroy our best tool for continuing to move the ball forward. I can swallow imperfection if it allows room for further improvement, but it appears that KGL was going to block such improvement for ever and always.

It now looks like this might be a non-issue. I feel sorry for the three negotiators who have been stabbed in the back, but maybe it’s best this way. The bill contained its many poison pills because of the 60-vote threshold the Repubs have for the first time in history imposed on nearly all Senate business. Come January, however, I am confident that Democrats will still control at least 53 seats and that some sort of filibuster reform will be reality. 

We can get a better bill with fewer votes then than we can with 60 votes now. KGL has sunk so much that the difference between those two bills might actually be enough to make flirting with the tipping point worth it.

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Create a Climate CBO

Reports about what will and what won’t be in next week’s Kerry-Graham-Lieberman energy bill are growing more and more troubling. Check out these articles from Treehugger and Mother Jones on the bill’s likely provisions.

A lot of environmental groups are going to support this bill on the theory that it’s better than nothing. Others will oppose it, citing the provisions that ban the EPA and state governments from acting more aggressively than Congress. They’ll say that the bill stymies further progress, and that we can do better post-filibuster reform but only if we don’t mislabel this as “progress” now. I’m not sure who’s right. I’ve been inclined to support this bill all along and have urged Senator Ben Nelson to vote for it, but these latest reports are troubling. I’ll make up my mind next week, once the bill actually drops and rumors become fact (or don’t).

It would be much easier figuring out if this bill is worth supporting if Congress had an environmental equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). I think we need a Congressional Climate Office or Congressional Environmental Office that would similarly “score” bills not for their financial cost or effect on the budget but for their carbon footprint and their environmental impacts. We already require Environmental Impact Statements for many construction projects; why not do so for bills and laws, as well?

An official climate “score” on KGL would go a long way towards helping lawmakers, energy experts, and environmentalists balance the bill’s provisions against each other and against the status quo. KGL will contain many compromises and it will contain many steps forward; a CCO could give at least one formal estimate on how the positives and negatives stack up. Whether this particular bill passes or not, it’s time for Congress to create a Congressional Climate Office to better steward the country’s landscapes and resources.

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