Cap-and-trade for members — solving Congress’s own CO2 crisis

As the controversial Waxman-Markey climate change bill advances to the House floor, Congress faces an emissions crisis much more personal in nature.

This one is so serious a challenge that even if House members, senators and every single congressional staffer immediately quadrupled their consumption of those corn-based edible cups, plates and utensils in the Capitol snack bar, it still wouldn’t be enough to offset the problem.

I am talking about Congress’s own toxic asset problem — the enormous amount of CO2 being exhaled by lawmakers on the House and Senate floors, in hearing rooms and at any of the 127 network camera positions scattered across the Capitol complex for their convenience.

Although “hot air” and “Congress” are not exactly strangers in the same sentence, according to recent satellite photos released by a new joint venture between C-SPAN and Google Earth (Google-SPAN), the congressional emissions problem has gotten markedly worse since the start of the 111th Congress. Left unchecked, environmentalists are convinced a hot-gas tipping point will be reached by mid-July.

And with all the talk on climate change, healthcare, a new Supreme Court nominee, Gitmo prisoners, waterboarding, CIA memos, truth commissions, new tobacco regulations, North Korea, the Middle East, Iraq, Pakistan, all the big spending bills and an apparent spate of post offices nationwide yearning to be named, the congressional exhalation problem isn’t expected to abate anytime soon.

Sources say that congressional leaders are so concerned about the hot-air problem, they’ve been conducting frantic ’round-the-clock tabletop war-game exercises in the secure, top-secret rooms in the new Capitol Visitor Center.

Being the patriot I am, I lifted an idea directly from the Waxman-Markey climate bill that might reverse the trend. The seed of an idea really started to germinate a few weeks back while I watched the scintillating House floor debate on resolutions congratulating the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team and commemorating National Train Day.

I call it the Cap-and-Trade for Members Act.

And since I would never want any special attention drawn to myself, I randomly picked two lawmaker names out of a hat to name the bill after. So it will now be referred to as simply the Schumer-Jackson Lee Cap-and-Trade for Members Act. Here’s how it works:

At the beginning of each Congress, when new members are issued their wallet-sized electronic vote cards, the cards should automatically be credited with one hour of “talk time” for the entire session. Committee hearings. Floor debates. News conferences. Special orders. One-minute speeches. Doesn’t matter. The member’s card then gets spent down just like a Starbucks gift card would. Sixty minutes of talk time over the course of the entire session, however that member chooses to use it.

Any time any lawmaker wants to speak anywhere on Capitol Hill, in order to activate the microphone, the “talk time” card has to be swiped into an attached machine and the exact number of minutes spoken gets deducted.

If some particularly gifted orator is at that inspirational crescendo of a transcendent thought about pork-belly prices and the 60th minute kicks in — the microphones instantly go dead. Instead of the typical “The time of the gentleman from Ohio has expired,” we’ll hear a horrible, screeching horn noise like they have when hockey goals are scored: HONNNNNKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!

I know it might seem a bit harsh, but given the extreme crisis, what we need right now is radical discipline and serious action.

If a particularly chatty member desperately needs a few extra seconds to finish that final brilliant thought, we can always set up a system that allows him to barter or buy extra time from a colleague. But since the entire amount of all congressional talk time is capped at a fixed amount, any extra time must come off someone else’s card.

Of course, we might consider giving committee chairmen more talk time than rank-and-file members. Likewise, someone with 10 years of service might warrant more than someone with just a few years, but don’t worry about the details right now. We can always create a select blue ribbon panel to work out the fine points. All disputes can be resolved by that hotbed of activity known as the House ethics committee.

This is exactly the kind of outside-the-box creativity that is going to see us through the current economic crisis and also set us on the path to a cooler, cleaner planet. So many possibilities here — and we’re just getting started.

Concerned about the same old members showing up on the House floor to deliver early-morning one-minutes and late-night special-order speeches? Let’s get the producers of “American Idol” involved. Open it up and let C-SPAN viewers phone in and vote people off the floor.

Tired of hearing the same old worn-out ideas from the same lawmakers year after year? How about a Cash for Clunker Ideas program? If that member trades in the old chart he’s been lugging to the floor every night for the past 10 years, we could reward him or her with some special Clunker Ideas earmark money. If he doesn’t take earmarks, we can allow him to trade his clunker cash for extra talk time. Like I said, we can worry about the detai — HONNNNNKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!

You can reach Jim Mills at