Climate Change Legislation: Not This Year

Climate change legislation will have to wait. All indications coming from the U.S. Congress, the White House, and global community suggest that a legally binding climate change agreement will not be an immediate priority. President Obama has signaled that his next priority will be dealing with job creation and deficit reduction, not climate change. What does this mean for proponents of climate change legislation? First, environmentalists have lost the “bully pulpit” that President Obama brought to this issue. Second, since the executive branch is not going to push this bill, the probability for substantive legislation on greenhouse gas emissions being passed during the current term has been significantly reduced. Third, since this issue will likely be marginalized by Democrats, it will give ample reason for Republicans not to work with the majority party on climate change legislation. Thus, it is highly likely this issue will have to be revisited during a second Obama term, presuming there is one.

If the White House has decided not to make climate change legislation a priority, then what about Congress? Currently, the U.S. Senate is deliberating over the Boxer/Kerry bill on climate change. As noted in earlier posts, the bill was dislodged from the Environment and Public Works (EPW) by Chairwomen Barbara Boxer (D, CA) in response to a Republican boycott of the mark-up process. Even so, it is unlikely that a major push for its passage will happen anytime soon in the Senate as a whole, mainly because a number of senators who represent mid-western states worry the current climate-change bill could punish their states economically. Ideology has also created a wedge between senators. This ideological schism between senators is not driven solely by party membership in the Senate. A group of moderate senators from both parties are beginning to form a coalition separate from the more liberal members of the Democratic Party. Last week’s decision by Boxer to remove the bill from the EPW committee did not help to bridge the gap between moderate senators and liberal proponents of the bill.

Proponents of the bill will find it difficult to have climate-change legislation reach the Senate floor for consideration because power within the chamber has shifted towards rural interests. More specifically, moderate senators, who represent rural areas, have begun voicing their skepticism over the bill. Recently, Richard Lugar (R, IN) stated he will not support the bill because economic interests of his state take precedence over climate change. The sole Democrat to vote against Boxer’s move in the EPW committee is Max Baucus (D, MT). Senator Baucus, who is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, indicated that the current bill does not do enough to protect domestic interests; he added that some type of carbon import tax should be added to the bill. Charles Grassely (R, IA), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, has also indicated his opposition to this bill. Senator Grassley argues the legislation needs to reflect the true economic costs of the bill and should not be centered on “purported environmental benefits.” But push-back on the bill among senators is not limited to Republicans. Midwestern senators Sherrod Brown (D, OH) and Debbie Stabenow (D, MI) have both voiced their hesitations over the bill in its current form. They have indicated the bill which needs “a lot of work”, should include more provisions to help energy-intensive industries such as steel, pulp, paper, and cement.

What is the probability of the bill receiving 60 votes to move forward for consideration? As of now, it is very unlikely. In an analysis of the current margins in the Senate of senators who support the bill, probably support the bill, are on the fence, and those who do not support the bill, the number of members who would vote for cloture (to break a filibuster) is 42. The chart below illustrates the current voting patterns of members voting for cloture on the bill. The estimates range from “1” vote for cloture to “0” a vote against cloture. Members who have a probability between .4 and .6 are moderate members who could in fact help boost the bill’s chances for passage. Members below the .5 threshold are unlikely to vote for cloture. I have circled the senators whose support for this bill is crucial if it is to move forward.

Members who fall within the circle include:
Begich (D,AK)
Lincoln (D,AR)
Pryor (D,AR)
Bayh (D,IN)
Landrieu (D,LA)
Collins (R,ME)
Snowe (R,ME)
Mccaskill (D,MO)
Baucus (D,MT)
Tester (D,MT)
Nelson (D,NE)
Hagan (D,NC)
Conrad (D,ND)
Dorgan (D,ND)
Voinovich (R,OH)
Specter (D,PA)
Johnson (D,SD)
Webb (D,VA)
Byrd (D,WV)
Rockefeller (D,WV)

In any event, the differences in the likely voting patterns of senators on the bill is a primary reason, I suspect, that the president has backed down from pushing the passage of this legislation in the near-term. As a result, President Obama’s inaction may in fact discourage senators who “are on the fence” from taking a supportive position of the bill—killing this piece of legislation before it goes up for a full vote.

Copenhagen Update: One Month to Go

Early signals from policymakers indicate it is unlikely the Copenhagen summit will yield a substantive agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. Recent comments made by political elites suggest that  political agreements will be the likely outcome of the conference rather than a full treaty on carbon emissions.

Why is this so? To start, a less ambitious agenda among international leaders is a result of a split between rich-poor nations over emissions targets. In fact during the Barcelona talks last week, delegates from African nations walked out of  negotiations, namely because African nations argued that rich nations were not setting significant goals for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. This rift resulted in Norway’s chief negotiator Hanne Bjurstroem, calling for a separate conference sometime next year in order to ink a final deal.

In addition to the developments in Barcelona, the role of the U.S. in regulating greenhouse gas emission remains a concern for international policymakers.  As of today, the U.S. is unable to request binding targets at Copenhagen because of difficulties within Congress to pass an overall climate change bill (see earlier posts which focused on the details of the Boxer-Kerry bill in the U.S. Senate).  I suspect the inability of the U.S. to take the lead on this issue helped facilitate last week’s events in Barcelona.

These developments should not be surprising. My assessment: Environmentalists have placed too much faith on the international community to address climate change; they will be disappointed, as political leaders are merely attempting to manage expectations on the outcomes of the conference. Political elites focus less on a common interest and more on self-interest. The latter is the driving force behind the motivations of policymakers, which helps explain the current developments on climate talks. Initial positions taken by international leaders allow for these individuals to either take credit or assign blame for any outcome, which fall short of an actual treaty. In any event, I expect to see over the next few weeks international policymakers engaging in the politics of climate change while at the same time downplaying the goals of the summit.

The Politics of Climate Change: Boxer Invokes the “Nuclear Option”

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) Chair Barbara Boxer(D, CA) used a procedural motion today to dislodge the Boxer-Kerry bill from the EPW committee and to send it directly to the Senate floor for consideration.


(Harry Hamburg/AP)

In a statement, Boxer defended the move:

“The committee and Senate rules that have been in place during Republican and Democratic majorities are there to be used when the majority feels it is in the best interest of their states and of the nation to act,” she said. “A majority of the committee believes that S. 1733, and the efforts that will be built upon it, will move us away from foreign oil imports that cost Americans one billion dollars a day, it will protect our children from pollution, create millions of clean-energy jobs, and stimulate billions of dollars of private investment.”

Boxer was able to dislodge the bill from the committee by a vote of 11-1. The only Democrat to vote against the bill, was Max Baucus (D, MT) who raised concerns about the economic impact of emissions caps as well as agriculture provisions included in the legislation. All Republican committee members were not present for the vote.

Ultimately this is a partisan move and will make it difficult to get the necessary vote to invoke cloture in the Senate. Though this is the first of many steps for passage of the bill, I suspect this move will scare off more moderate Democrats who have already raised concerns over the bill.  This is important because it is the actions of moderate Senators, not the Democratic Leadership in the Senate, who will likely make or break this legislation. Votes matter and based on today’s events, the Democrats have lost at least one prominent moderate senator who will likely be very influential in determining whether the party can muster 60 votes within their party to move forward on this bill. More to come…

The Politics of Climate Change: Partisanship and The Mark-Up Process of the Boxer-Kerry Bill

Don’t hold your breath for the U.S. to have a climate bill ready for the Copenhagen summit. As expected, partisanship is driving the mark-up process of the Boxer-Kerry bill in the Senate Environment and Public Works committee. As of today, Republican committee members have signaled they will not participate in the process until they are provided with more information from the EPA and CBO over the bill’s full economic costs. At the same time, committee chair Barbara Boxer (D, CA) has signaled that she is ready to invoke Senate rules to dislodge the bill from the committee and to bring it directly to the floor in response to the Republican Party’s boycott. To supporters of the bill, Boxer’s strategy may seem like a good thing to pursue in order for the bill not to get bogged down in committee. It is not however. This is because she will need not only the support of moderate Democrats but also of moderate Republicans; both groups of committee members have signaled they are skeptical of the financial costs of the bill.

To understand the reasons behind the stand-off between Democrats and Republicans serving on the committee, it is important to consider the ideological differences between them. To do this, I have provided a chart below, which illustrates ideological differences among committee members as defined by Poole and Rosenthal’s DW-Nominate scores. The scores measure members’ ideology and range from -1 (liberal) to 1 (conservative) on the x-axis. The y-axis of the chart simply measures the differences between members geographically—i.e. how far they are from each other based on the Republican realignment in the south during the later part of the 20th century. By looking at the chart, you can appreciate the ideological polarization inherent to the committee as a contributing reason to the stand-off. A good way to understand the gap between members is to look at the differences between Bernie Sanders (I, VT), the most liberal member of the committee, and Jim Inhofe (R, OK) who is the most conservative member of the committee. Between these two members is a considerable gap, which helps explain the reason for the GOP’s opposition to the bill. The ideological divide between Democrats and Republican committee members, therefore, does not lend itself to a high probability of bipartisan behavior. This outcome, however, is not inevitable. In fact, it can be averted if Senator Boxer can successfully reach out to moderate committee members.
Senate 111 Environment CommitteeREV
So, who are the moderate members Senator Boxer needs to reach out to in order to pass a bipartisan bill? Moderate committee members are those who fall within the circle that is drawn on the chart above. I define moderates as: Democrats who are to the right of the party’s center (-.43); and Republicans who are to the left of the party center (.45). In actuality, moderate members of the committee tend to be closer to one another than they are to some of their fellow partisans. From this vantage point, moderates act as a third party in Congress and serve as means to counterbalance the ideological extremes at either end of the political spectrum. And as result, a coalition of these members negate the possibility that Boxer will be able to bypass her committee in the mark-up process.

If Boxer wants a bipartisan bill, I suggest two courses of action. First, build a coalition with some combination of at least five of the following individuals: Voinvich (R, OH), Carper (D, DE), Baucus (D, MT), Alexander (R, TN), Udall (D, CO), Bond (R, MO), Specter (D, PA) and Gilibrand (D, NY). The strategy here is that essentially these members are not too far from each other ideologically, so accordingly, if one of them supports the bill, the others might follow suit. Second, Boxer needs to be careful not to alienate any of the eight moderates in her endeavors to muster at least five of them to vote for the bill. If she does decide to pull the bill and take a more hard-line position, then this is sufficient enough to scare conservative Democrats (Carper, Baucus, Specter, and Gilibrand) or moderate Republicans (Voinvich, Bond, and Alexander) off. As of today, Boxer’s partisan approach ensures that both Republicans and moderate Democrats will not support the bill when it reaches the Senate floor.

So, to get the votes on the bill it is not enough for Democrats simply to unite liberals, they will also need support from moderate Republicans and Democrats alike. Even if Senator Boxer is able to get the support of a few moderates on the committee, she will have to reach out to all moderates in order to ensure that she does not alienate any of them when the bill does come to a vote.

The Challenge of Polling Cap-and-Trade

Mark Blumenthal argues that policymakers need to be careful in their interpretation of the public’s response to “cap and trade”, particularly since individuals are likely to develop pseudo-opinions about this concept the moment they are asked about it. This occurs because most Americans are likely to be ill-informed on the issue.

The problem of over-interpreting polling on “cap and trade” is that individuals’ responses on this issue are typically an artifact of the words, or concepts, presented in the question rather than a developed attitude about the policy as a whole. So what can we expect from this phenomenon? That proponents and opponents of this policy will seek to capitalize on the fact that most Americans do not know a lot about this issue, and will distort the facts surrounding the policy outcomes of “cap and trade” as a means to win political points with the public.