Democrats in Congress, not courts or GOP, must address climate — a good bill is waiting

The Supreme Court decision this week to restrict federal regulatory authority over carbon dioxide emissions from power plants should provide Democrats in Congress the last impetus they need to finally act on comprehensive climate change legislation. And they no longer have excuses for inaction, since Democrats have now, after decades of missteps, managed to create a climate plan that is both politically popular and effective policy.

For most of the last 30 years, Democrats in Congress have bungled the issue. Valuable clean energy policies have passed as half measures, but Congress has always balked at major policies needed to limit emissions and create powerful incentives for large private sector investments in a clean energy economy. Twice, in 1993 and 2010, House Democrats pursued carbon pricing, the favored policy of economists everywhere and nightmare for Democratic political operatives anywhere. But, each time, the Senate was unable to gain the needed votes for what amounted to politically unpopular energy tax hikes, and Democrats lost their large House majorities in mid-term elections following both attempts.

After the “cap and trade” carbon pricing bill and the 2010 election debacle in which Democrats lost a net of 63 House members, six Senate seats, six Governors and 720 state legislative seats, the Obama administration and its environmental allies decided to instead create complicated regulations requiring each state to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

But the regulations were expansive, viewed by many legal experts as stretching regulatory authority to the breaking point, and in 2015 they suffered an unprecedented stay by the Supreme Court without ever going into effect. Indeed, it was that regulatory overreach that prompted a even greater counter-overreach by the right-wing majority of the Supreme Court this week.  The court chose not just to restrict the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority over power plant emissions, but insisted that there must be an ultra-explicit, “clear congressional authorization” for almost any nuance of rule-making, a nearly impossible standard given fast-changing realities of the complex energy marketplace, not to mention climate change dynamics.

But finally, now, in response to these past failures, and this court overreach, the Biden administration and Democrats have a better answer. They have created a wide-ranging clean energy tax incentive bill that provides a positive agenda of economic opportunities for both workers and consumers, while cutting climate emissions deeply. But the approach is not about demonizing oil and gas, resources we will need for years. Nor is it about feeding a culture war, despite rhetoric from the fringes of both parties.

Instead, the pending policies would jumpstart private sector clean technology innovation and deployment throughout the energy economy, while creating millions of jobs. And these consumer and business tax breaks for clean energy purchases are extremely popular with American voters, since they do not involve politically challenged energy taxes, and will in fact reduce long-term energy prices, improve energy security and increase consumer choice. 

For their part, Republicans bear much blame for decades of inaction, during most of which they have either denied climate change altogether or failed to offer serious policy solutions. Instead, the GOP has shamelessly undermined and exploited reasonable attempts at climate action for their own short-term political benefit, actions generations to come will hold in contempt. Yet, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that until now the policy strategies of Democrats have never proved politically powerful enough to deal with an issue like climate change, which has such fundamental implications for our consumer economy, especially in the face of implacable partisan opposition. Ironically, many Republicans have supported some clean energy tax credits in the recent past, even as recently as a small-scale, short-term bill passed into law by a GOP Senate in 2020. But in this Congress, out of sheer partisan spite it appears, every single Republican senator has opposed a truly transformative clean energy tax credit bill.

A tax incentive approach has already passed the House, and the Senate is considering the $325 billion, 10-year package of clean energy tax incentives passed by the Senate Finance Committee. Using budget reconciliation procedures, Senate Democrats should adopt these measures with all deliberate speed, action that will enable the U.S. clean energy transition to begin in earnest.

Only once the U.S. takes such actions will we be in a position to force other major climate emitters, especially China, to cut their emissions, including through trade policy, and thus protect the American people from the increasing prospect of climate calamity. And oh, by the way, Democrats can run during the upcoming mid-term elections on having passed politically popular clean energy legislation that over time also will limit America’s vulnerability to oil price shocks, including from Russia.

Relying too heavily on the courts and agency ruling-making authority was always a flawed and risky strategy to protect against climate calamity. Instead, Congress must act on an issue so fundamental to our national security and the public welfare. So, Senate Democrats, now that the right-wing Court has acted, what are you waiting for?

Paul Bledsoe is strategic adviser with the Progressive Policy Institute and a former Senate Finance Committee staff member. He served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.

Tags climate Climate change Democrats Fossil fuels Global warming GOP Republicans SCOTUS Supreme Court
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