Rethinking America

United States: Bipartisanship on the Cheap

The Growing Climate Solutions Act, if signed into law, won’t cost a lot of money, won’t hurt anybody, but won’t go far in curbing greenhouse gases.

Takeaways


  • It is telling that senators most committed to meaningful climate legislation, including Independent Bernie Sanders (VT) and Democrat Elizabeth Warren (MA) opposed it.
  • It sets a bad precedent by providing too easy a way for legislators in both parties to use faux bipartisanship to appeal to voters desperate to see change.
  • There were 9 references to the "bipartisan" effort in the short press release on the bill from one Senate office.

In late June, the usually fractured U.S. Senate took a day off from gridlock and overwhelmingly passed a climate bill, the Growing Climate Solutions Act.

A miracle in the making?

The bill, if approved by the U.S. House, has two principal goals. First, it would make the U.S. federal government the middleman in a voluntary market in which farmers can earn credits for climate-friendly agricultural practices.

And second, polluting industries can buy the credits to shine up their environmental credentials or satisfy carbon-cutting requirements that don’t yet exist.

Look twice if almost everybody agrees

Amidst all that seeming rare and great news, what got the wary attention of long-time Capitol Hill reporters (like myself) was the whopping 92-8 vote in favor.

That is more like a a tally of the kind we used to see when the Supreme Soviet met to rubber stamp Kremlin policies.

Such a lopsided vote by a deeply divided U.S. legislative body, on an issue that’s been too controversial to touch for a decade, was bound to raise questions.

Punting on any real issue

After all, the world’s self-proclaimed “greatest deliberative body” hasn’t come close to dealing with, never mind agreeing on a unified response to serious and pressing U.S. policy issues.

This applies to improving the U.S. health care system to helping millions of young people pay off their college loans.

More façade than real change

It didn’t take much digging to see that the Growing Climate Solutions Act was bipartisanship on the cheap.

Assuming the Act is signed into law, it won’t cost a lot of money, won’t hurt anybody but won’t go far in curbing greenhouse gases.

Instead, it sets a bad precedent by providing too easy a way for legislators in both parties to use faux bipartisanship to appeal to voters desperate to see big problems solved in Washington.

Tricking voters into happy news?

Consider this telltale evidence: In the short press release on the bill from one Senate office, I counted 9 references to the “bipartisan” effort.

Much of the media fell right into the trap. “Stuff is getting done. And both parties are helping” was the Washington Post headline over a well-displayed opinion piece praising the bill.

The old debate over voluntary vs. mandatory

The problem with the legislation, as all those observers steeped in climate issues know well, is that it lacks the prerequisite to achieve big, lasting results: mandatory carbon-cutting goals that industries must meet or suffer real financial penalties.

In a “cap and trade” system with teeth, annual caps force polluters to pay for their sins. That raises the price of credits which, in turn, incentivizes serious investments in carbon-cutting measures by farmers and others.

All carrots and no sticks

But as Mother Jones’ tough-minded food writer Tom Philpott noted in a recent piece, the Growing Climate Solutions Act is all carrots and no sticks — “The Climate Bill Even Big Agriculture Loves.” That’s hardly a warm endorsement.

It shouldn’t be, either, because the Growing Climate Solutions Act truly is “climate bill light.” It is a substitute for serious legislation the Democratic Congress and the Obama administration failed to get through in 2009-10, but is needed now.

“Nay” votes from those serious about curbing climate change

That’s why a few senators, including Independent Bernie Sanders (VT) and Democrat Elizabeth Warren (MA) opposed it, rather than make a timid gesture to bipartisanship.

Worse, senators who supported a toothless climate bill now can woo voters in home districts with the popular message that they’ve helped take action that will reduce the danger of forest fires, drought and hurricanes.

In truth, the voluntary market the bill provides isn’t likely to produce that kind of impact.

Purpose: Taking off the political (not the real) heat

The fact is real climate legislation will take very hard work, money and political sacrifices.

However, the Growing Climate Solutions Act may have made that more difficult now by taking the heat off Congress. (“But we just passed a climate bill!”)

The importance of U.S. farming communities

In 2009, some farm organizations did everything to make sure the climate bill which the Democrats tried to get through Congress would fail.

As I wrote at the time in the Post, many farmers feared the plan to cap carbon emissions from industries would raise costs of fuel, fertilizer and electricity from coal burning utilities, and increase regulation of a promising new heartland biofuels industry.

The American Farm Bureau Federation handed out hats with a cheeky logo — “Don’t CAP Our Future.” Rural Democrats deserted the bill in droves in the House and it died in the Senate.

Conclusion

As supporters of the Growing Climate Solutions Act rightly acknowledged, interest in
climate initiatives in the farm belt has been growing as ranchers and farmers deal with floods and hotter weather and see the value of climate-friendly practices.

That matters greatly, especially considering the heavy tilt of votes in the U.S. Senate accorded to the U.S.’s small rural states.

It would be too bad to keep frittering away that momentum just for shows of bipartisanship, instead of doing what is necessary: marshaling the political support for meaningful action on the climate.

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About Dan Morgan

Dan Morgan is an independent journalist and author. He covered national and international affairs for The Washington Post for more than 40 years.

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