Friday, July 23, 2010

Climate Down

The problem with postmortems about things like this is that there is usually more than one way to look at it, and they can all be valid.  For example, it's certainly true that if Republicans who supported cap-and-trade way back during the 2008 campaign had remained interested in working out a bill, then a bill would have passed.  So (and wording this from the perspective of something having gone wrong) you can blame the Republicans who in some sense "should" have been at the table: Snowe, Collins, Gregg, LeMieux, Gramm, McCain, and a few others.  Or you can blame the people who make Snowe, Collins, and the rest more concerned about primary challenges from the right than they are about anything else.  Or you can blame the candidates who fell just short of giving the Dems a few more Senators over the last three election cycles, or the voters who didn't quite elect them.  Or you can blame the filibuster.  Or you can blame the structure of the Senate, which makes it likely that the Senate won't run by pure majority party rule (although it doesn't force the specific filibuster rules in effect today).  Or you can blame Democrats such as Jay Rockefeller for putting the parochial interests of their states above the national interest and their party's platform.  Or you can blame Harry Reid and other Senate leaders for not working out a deal with those Senators.  Or you can blame Barack Obama for placing too low a priority on climate/energy.

All of those things are true!  And they're not exactly competing explanations; they're all true, but just look at the issue from different perspectives.

I'll mainly repeat the point I've made before: it's worth noting that on a legislative time scale, cap-and-trade was really very, very, new, and most important laws tend to take a long time, often spanning several Congresses, to pass.  Looking back...in 1992, global warming was a two-sentence throwaway at the end of the Democratic Party platform.  If anything, it's even less prominent in 1996. In 2000, the Al Gore platform contained a fair amount of climate rhetoric -- but proposed almost no specific actions.  No change in 2004: plenty of rhetoric, but only vague calls to action, mostly focusing on international agreements.  No cap-and-trade, no carbon tax.  So for Democrats, the idea that Congressional action is needed to limit carbon emissions as a core party principle only goes back to the 2008 campaign.

Matt Yglesias has a nice post up about the the regional complications of a carbon bill.  What I'd add is that these are the sorts of things that can and do get worked out as bills move through the process.  Think about the conflicts between rural and urban areas in health care legislation, for example.  To look at the larger picture...legislating in the American, Madisonian system tends to be about interests.  Until a bill actually starts moving through the legislative process, it's hard for supporters to know which interests they need to buy off, which they need to defeat, which they need to find compromises with, and what those compromises might be.  No one knows how strong the opposition of nominally opposed groups might be (nor, for that matter, how strong the support of nominally supportive groups might be).  No one knows which opposition groups can be bought off, nor what it would take to buy them off.  No one knows which Senators are available with those potential compromises.  Of course, proponents can guess, and the campaign tends to provide clues about these things, but nothing can really substitute for actually bringing a bill to the table that is headed for a committee mark-up. 

Now, I'm not saying that all of this made climate/energy impossible to pass in this Congress.  Plainly, Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats placed a lower priority on climate than they did on stimulus, health care, and the banking bill.  If climate/energy had been the first thing out of the box in January 2009, it probably would have passed -- but stimulus gets delayed, with unknown but potentially dire consequences.  If climate/energy is the big push in the spring and summer of 2009, well, perhaps it passes, perhaps not -- but health care probably doesn't.  Lots of unknowns in any counterfactual speculation, but one certainly must accept that there were risks and trade-offs (as well as opportunities) involved in any other path.  I also think that Kevin Drum has a good point that action really does involve some pain, and at least in my opinion it's understandable why Obama didn't want to stress policies that would involve additional sacrifice in the middle of an economic trauma.

Meanwhile, it seems to me that climate has now moved way up on the unfinished agenda of mainstream Democrats, which bodes well for some bill passing the next time that the Dems have unified control of Congress and the presidency.  And it's by no means certain that GOP rejectionism is a permanent strategy; there are plenty of possible paths that could lead back to a significant minority of Republicans in Congress being willing to support climate legislation.  Of course, should Republicans win back the House and hold it for a decade, then climate legislation might not happen for a long time.  I'm certainly not going to make any predictions about election outcomes down the road.  All I would say is that climate legislation got much, much farther in the 111th Congress than it ever had before; that Democratic activists will almost certainly place a much higher priority on the issue going forward than they have in the past; and that both of those are very good long-term predictors of successful action, if and when the Dems next get a chance to act.

[UPDATE: Please see important substantive comments from "Anonymous" below, who thinks that I got this one pretty wrong, and then my response].

5 comments:

  1. Jonathan,

    I think you're generally right on on your blog, but maybe because climate isn't your issue, I think this post is uncommonly dumb. I would make a couple of points.

    First, your post reads as if the problem with the climate bill was that it didn't go through the "process" to ID and fix substantive policy issues that members with different constituencies might have. Sounds all well and good, except, the problem is, it isn't true. First, let's take the House. Waxman engaged in EXTENSIVE negotiations with Blue Dog, Brown Dog and other manufacturing and coal state members in order to write a bill that could pass. Those compromises were in turn actually based on an unprecedented coalition of business (incl. coal based power) and environmentalists in USCAP. He worked with Mike Doyle and Rick Boucher to make sure all those little legislative compromises moved the ball forward and picked up votes. The one place where climate had never been considered before, the House, was were that process happened, worked, and resulted in a favorable vote. And while the Senate bill was largely based on that work, the swing senators themselves completely ignored the compromises. Any bill coming from the House, and particularly Henry Waxman had to be a radical liberal concoction.

    Second, this was literally the 4th time a pretty similar climate bill has been considered by the Senate (2003, 2005, 2008, 2010). Comprehensive health reform, while on the agenda for a long time, never got so many votes or opportunities for members to learn about and take positions on a bill. For the last year members and staff have been meeting to do that hard work, organized by Boxer, by Kerry, by Sherrod Brown and Debbie Stabenow, and by Reid. And from a substance (not politics) standpoint, the bill did what one would expect of a mature issue. It found the legitimate conflicts and worked in compromises to quell legitimate fears such as sending manufacturing jobs overseas and increased prices to midwestern consumers. Bottom line, the compromises you would expect of a mature issue, in fact, occurred, they just didn't matter.

    Second, your initial point proves too much. If the issue really was that Senators did not feel their issues had been adequately addressed, you wouldn't expect to LOSE votes. But, in fact, the very Senators who voted for previous bills (Snowe, Collins, McCain, etc.)were now unwilling to come along to a less ambitious bill. I find it hard to believe that having the issue on the agenda for longer will solve their problems if it, in fact, made them worse. And its important to note that NOT A SINGLE REPUBLICAN was willing to vote for this. Climate is often called a regional issue. And for the dems, in many ways it is. But the very republicans whose states would benefit from a bill also voted no. GOP obstructionism has to be in the first sentence of any explanation.

    So maybe its that the voting public just haven't had enough time to make the issue a priority and push their Senators along. This would be the explanation if you think that inclusion of climate in the Dem platform is a proxy for how much dem voters care. I'm still not convinced the problem is how long the issue has been on the agenda. First, look to Ezra's latest post about the relatively unique factors that make climate hard from a mass mobilizations tandpoint. I would say these are MUCH more explanatory than that voters haven't had enough time to focus. Second, polling shows two interesting things. First, that people want to solve the problem (but that the intensity is low) and second that that support has been DECREASING not increasing in recent years.

    Most importantly, this isn't the type of problem that gets worse, causing people to see that it must be solved, causing them to push their Senators to solve it. If people are starting to see the effects of climate change, it is too late to fix it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Jonathan,

    I think you're generally right on on your blog, but maybe because climate isn't your issue, I think this post is uncommonly dumb. I would make a couple of points.

    First, your post reads as if the problem with the climate bill was that it didn't go through the "process" to ID and fix substantive policy issues that members with different constituencies might have. Sounds all well and good, except, the problem is, it isn't true. First, let's take the House. Waxman engaged in EXTENSIVE negotiations with Blue Dog, Brown Dog and other manufacturing and coal state members in order to write a bill that could pass. Those compromises were in turn actually based on an unprecedented coalition of business (incl. coal based power) and environmentalists in USCAP. He worked with Mike Doyle and Rick Boucher to make sure all those little legislative compromises moved the ball forward and picked up votes. The one place where climate had never been considered before, the House, was were that process happened, worked, and resulted in a favorable vote. And while the Senate bill was largely based on that work, the swing senators themselves completely ignored the compromises. Any bill coming from the House, and particularly Henry Waxman had to be a radical liberal concoction.

    Second, this was literally the 4th time a pretty similar climate bill has been considered by the Senate (2003, 2005, 2008, 2010). Comprehensive health reform, while on the agenda for a long time, never got so many votes or opportunities for members to learn about and take positions on a bill. For the last year members and staff have been meeting to do that hard work, organized by Boxer, by Kerry, by Sherrod Brown and Debbie Stabenow, and by Reid. And from a substance (not politics) standpoint, the bill did what one would expect of a mature issue. It found the legitimate conflicts and worked in compromises to quell legitimate fears such as sending manufacturing jobs overseas and increased prices to midwestern consumers. Bottom line, the compromises you would expect of a mature issue, in fact, occurred, they just didn't matter.

    Second, your initial point proves too much. If the issue really was that Senators did not feel their issues had been adequately addressed, you wouldn't expect to LOSE votes. But, in fact, the very Senators who voted for previous bills (Snowe, Collins, McCain, etc.)were now unwilling to come along to a less ambitious bill. I find it hard to believe that having the issue on the agenda for longer will solve their problems if it, in fact, made them worse. And its important to note that NOT A SINGLE REPUBLICAN was willing to vote for this. Climate is often called a regional issue. And for the dems, in many ways it is. But the very republicans whose states would benefit from a bill also voted no. GOP obstructionism has to be in the first sentence of any explanation.

    So maybe its that the voting public just haven't had enough time to make the issue a priority and push their Senators along. This would be the explanation if you think that inclusion of climate in the Dem platform is a proxy for how much dem voters care. I'm still not convinced the problem is how long the issue has been on the agenda. First, look to Ezra's latest post about the relatively unique factors that make climate hard from a mass mobilization standpoint. I would say these are MUCH more explanatory than that voters haven't had enough time to focus. Second, polling shows two interesting things. First, that people want to solve the problem (but that the intensity is low) and second that that support has been DECREASING not increasing in recent years.

    Most importantly, this isn't the type of problem that gets worse, causing people to see that it must be solved, causing them to push their Senators to solve it. If people are starting to see the effects of climate change, it is too late to fix it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Part 2 of comment

    At the end of the day, it wasn't a lack of substantive policy compromises, or education of members, or growing but insufficient public concern. Which means that waiting longer and trying the same or a similar strategy again isn't terribly likely to yield a different result.

    And that is scary for this issue much more than most, because climate isn't like health care or financial reform or even deficit reduction. Two overlapping concerns make it a very different problem. First, feedback loops mean that the problem doesn't just get linearly worse, but it actually STOPS being solvable at some point (some point uncomfortably soon the leading experts say). This isn't an argument for climate policy demagoguery. But waiting until an optimal political moment or for 10 years like for healthcare just isn't a substantive option. In 10 years, this problem very well may be unsolvable. And second, any amount that you do wait means you have to do the hard work of solving the problem faster. Which makes it harder for all the competing interests. Which probably makes it less politically likely.

    Unfortunately, I think your optimism and your political-science based (which I generally support) explanation is pretty off the mark on this issue.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anon,

    Thanks for the excellent substantive comments. A couple of things...

    1. You are correct that this has made it to the Senate floor before, and I should have said so. My sense is -- and I certainly could be wrong on it -- that it was never really a serious threat to pass before this Congress, and so most of the serious deal-making didn't really happen.

    2. What happened in the House last year certainly does count as serious; if I implied otherwise, then I wrote poorly. I'm saying (correctly or not) that the 111th Congress is the first time that this was really seriously considered.

    3. Would the same strategy work next time? I'd say it depends on (1) the numbers, (2) GOP strategy, and (3) the priority Dems place on it. My optimism as far as the bill passing is basically based on factor #3 getting better in the future. Factor #2 couldn't get much worse, and may or may not get better. Factor #1 is unknown. However, I would add that if things go fairly well for the Dems in 2010 & 2012 (say, narrow House majority and 55 Senators after 2010, and then reelection and about 55 Senators after 2012) that Senate reform of some kind at the beginning of the 113th Congress is better than a 50/50 bet.

    ReplyDelete
  5. You wrote that Senator Gramm supports climate legislation. I think you mean Senator Graham.

    ReplyDelete

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