Waxman-Markey passes the House

So, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 passed the House on Friday. First, to get the necessary throat-clearing out of the way: this is an historic moment that was both an extremely long time in coming and also a lot speedier than many dared hope. When Henry Waxman announced his intention of bring the bill to a floor vote by July 4, most in the environmental community thought the goal was admirably ambitious but probably unachievable. The passage of the bill, if nothing else, testifies to the parliamentary skill of the congressional leadership. Unfortunately, the Senate promises to be an even tougher battle.

Although congress has hardly covered itself in glory on the climate change issue, it’s worth noting that the vote is an example of politicians doing the right thing without any clear reward. There really isn’t much of a built-in political constituency for averting climate change disaster. It’s an esoteric subject that few Americans feel strongly about, and a deep bench of vested interests are prepared to go to the mat to maintain the status quo. In spite of the stiff organizational incentives to do nothing, congressional leaders managed to cajole a bill through. For anyone who does care about this issue, the process was fairly ghastly to behold, but the final outcome should be a source of cheer.

The bill itself is a pretty good one. It’s far from perfect, but the compromises generally kept intact the core goal of placing an economy-wide cap on carbon emissions, supported by a raft of efficiency standards and investments in clean energy. The bill needs to be strengthened, certainly, but I think observers tend to discount the extent to which reality, rather than legislation, will dictate our response to climate change. By “reality” I don’t mean political reality, but rather technological, economic, and scientific reality. That is, technology will improve at a given pace, fossil fuels and renewable energy will carry their given prices, and the effects of climate change will unfold along a given timeline. The policy environment is critical to coordinating our actions, but there are going to be countless adjustments to the legal framework made in ensuing years in response to facts on the ground. Obama seems to understand this, and puts a rosy spin on the situation:

> I actually think that this is going to be similar to our efforts at controlling acid rain with the cap and trade. I think this is going to end up being much less costly, much more efficient; technology is going to move much more rapidly than people anticipate. And we are going to have — be able in this process to take a look at what kind of progress are we making five years from now, 10 years from now, 15 years from now. With the framework now in place we may find ourselves not only able, but eager to move on that even more ambitious program.

Whether you share Obama’s optimism about our ability to meet the challenge of climate change, I think the basic insight here is correct: politics will largely be driven by events, not vice versa.

Speaking of which, the political class is already chattering about the possible electoral consequences of the bill. And every analyst is dusting off the same historical analogy: Bill Clinton’s ill-fated B.T.U. tax. In 1993, the Clinton administration managed to get a fossil fuel tax through the House in a narrow vote, only to have it die in the Senate. Democrats then proceeded to get epically slaughtered in the 1994 mid-term election.

> Republicans obviously saw the parallels between the 1993 vote and the one Friday. As the gavel came down on their failed push to derail the bill, Republicans chanted “B.T.U., B.T.U.” and seemed almost in a celebratory mood.

> “On the floor, it felt like we won,” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a party political strategist. “They put a lot of guys on the line.”

> The votes were strikingly similar. In 1993, the legislation containing the Clinton energy tax was adopted on a 219-to-213 vote with 38 Democrats defecting. On Friday, the House bill was approved 219 to 212, with 44 Democrats defecting.

The problem with such historical analogies is that they’re invariably terrible. The comparison ignores the fact that 16 years have gone by. It ignores shifting opinions on climate change, the security implications of our energy mix, and the need to revitalize our manufacturing base. It ignores the fact that a whole lot of other stuff happened in 1994 that affected the electoral outcome.

The more honest and boring appraisal of the electoral situation is that no one knows how the climate bill will affect the mid-term elections, but given that its provisions won’t take effect for several years, it seems likely that the state of the economy will be the overriding electoral consideration in 2010.

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