Let’s vote on climate measure

Congressional Republicans seeking to kill the cap-and-trade bill should ask for one simple amendment. To become effective, the legislation would have to be approved by a simple majority of American voters in a national referendum to be held in November 2009.

The arguments in favor of a referendum are so intuitive that cap-and-trade backers will look downright undemocratic opposing an election that allows ordinary voters to have a say. Why shouldn’t we get to vote? Do backers of cap-and-trade have such a high regard for their own intellects and such low estimations of the electorate’s collective intelligence that they think we’re too stupid to decide this issue? Are they trying to pull something over on us? This is such a landmark change in energy policy, isn’t it appropriate that we all study the issue for a few months and then go to the polls to decide the matter? Wouldn’t it be a grand opportunity for all Americans to think deeply about issues ranging from climate change to energy taxation?

Assume, for the fun of it, that the Democratic leadership succumbs to these arguments and permits the amendment, allowing a referendum. Will the measure fail? Almost certainly it would. As a longtime practitioner of referendum politics, I can aver that cap-and-trade has “loser” written all over it as an electoral issue. To justify that claim, I’d start with the latest polling. Referenda need support in the range of 58 to 60 percent in early polling to hang on and pass after the attacks they sustain during a campaign. The latest cap-and-trade surveys show support well below that threshold. A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll found support at 52 percent for cap-and-trade, “down 7 points from a year ago.” See what I mean? Drive a high-water stake in the ground when proposals like this emerge and you’ll see the monthly declines in support. By November, it’ll be lucky to get 44 percent.

This measure has other poll-able problems, too. Start with the proposition that most Americans don’t really know much about this idea or concept. A recent Rasmussen survey found that just 24 percent of Americans could “correctly identify the cap-and-trade proposal as something that deals with environmental issues.” More thought it was a restraint on Wall Street. Whenever an issue is so poorly known and understood by voters, they tend to resolve uncertainty with a vote of no. Passing a measure that you don’t really know anything about could create problems, they reason, but a “no” vote maintains the status quo and opens the door for other opportunities to solve the supposed problem. See, voters are smarter than you thought.

The cap-and-trade proposal will also fall into the referendum pit known as “unintended consequences.” Buried within the 1,400 pages of the bill before Congress, voters will reason, are lots of “gotchas” that no one sees coming. All opponents of cap-and-trade have to do is suggest a few plausible unintended consequences and voters will assume there are dozens more. For example, I heard a pundit suggest that this measure might help the environment in other countries more than the U.S. if credits are earned for tree-planting outside our borders.

The ultimate “unintended consequence” for voters will be a big tax hike. This possibility is hidden from view in the bill’s 1,400 pages, but it’s lethal in a referendum campaign. The ABC News-Washington Post poll shows that even if you describe the measure as “effective,” support drops to 44 percent after you suggest that it will raise electric bills $25 per month. Backers of cap-and-trade cannot allow voters to decide their electric bills, or the measure is doomed.

David Hill is a member of the research faculty at Auburn University and has been a Republican pollster since 1984.