As it turns out, Kermit the Frog was right: “It’s not easy being green,” especially if you are one of 67 House- and 11 Senate co-sponsors of the “Green New Deal” resolution introduced on Feb. 7 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDearborn office of Rep. Debbie Dingell vandalized Restless progressives eye 2024 Five issues that will define the months until the midterms MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeySenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Pledged money not going to Indigenous causes Senate Democrats call on Biden to push for COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers at WTO MORE (D-Mass.). That’s because the resolution is such a catch-all mish-mash list of environmental and socio-economic problems and solutions that no member could be expected to concisely explain its breadth, scope or ramifications. As House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiNews media's sausage-making obsession helps no one Klobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (D-Calif.) told Politico, “The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”
Nevertheless, Pelosi told a news conference the next day that she was “excited” about the plan and welcomed it and any other proposals. That’s not to say she has committed to bringing the resolution to the House floor or directing the 11 committees to which it has been referred to at least hold hearings on it. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table Senate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo On The Money — Biden stresses calm amid omicron fears MORE (R-Ky.) has indicated he would bring Markey’s Green New Deal resolution up for a vote at some point. If there is a whiff of partisan opportunism in that pledge, so be it. While Ocasio-Cortez accused McConnell of “trying to bully the party,” she added: “I think people should call his bluff.”
I was asked by a reporter whether the Green New Deal resolution is a unique or unusual way to go about legislating. I responded that it wasn’t; Congress adopts what are called “sense of the House,” “of the Senate,” or “of the Congress” resolutions all the time. And that is all this is: a non-binding bit of hortatory that puts Congress on record without having to suffer any adverse blowback from a binding statute. What counts in the long run is whether Congress is willing to follow through on some of its non-binding position-taking by taking action on real legislation that does something about the situation being complained of. More often than not it is content to stick with its bumper sticker bravado rather than risk a fender bender or head-on collision caused by unintended consequences from its statutory mandates.
In my just published book, “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays” (2018), I suggest in the final chapter that while Congress has morphed from a culture of legislating to a culture of campaigning, it might consider a new approach --“a culture of governing” by adopting a “big picture governing approach” or what Woodrow Wilson in 1885 called “government by discussion” or “the informing function of Congress.” That would entail first having debates in the House and Senate on the broad nature of problems to be addressed before sending a resolution with instructions to the appropriate committees to flesh out the legislative details.
This is not a new idea; in fact, it is how the early Congresses went about legislating by having general debates in the committee of the whole House on the state of the Union on a particular issue, then sending it to a select committee to develop legislative language. This was before the creation of a standing committee system and became a bit unwieldy with small numbers of members serving on dozens of select committees. But the idea would work just as well if not better with today’s standing committee system of fixed jurisdictions.
The Green New Deal resolution would be an ideal candidate for such a debate in looking at the pressing environmental problems and energy needs facing the country. Unlike the “Oxford style debates” tried by the House in the 1990s that were unconnected to any specific legislative activity, the initial debates by the whole House on the larger problems would take on special meaning by being tied to a mandate to committees to report legislation.
While the Green New Dealers may be surprised to learn that their sense of Congress resolutions offer a potentially old fashioned way to legislate, I think they have hit on something that has real promise for beginning to address the larger problems confronting our nation. The self-described radicals have something very important in common with their founding brethren at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own.