How Manchin holds the future hostage

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks to a reporter before the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.
Greg Nash
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks to a reporter before the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.

Sen. Joe Manchin, the Maserati-driving maverick Democrat from West Virginia, must be feeling the stings of slings and arrows right now. He is being chastised by his fellow Democrats, climate scientists, climate-action advocates and the rest of the chattering classes for his latest rejection of President Biden’s plan to fight global warming.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has wasted the better part of a year trying to strike a deal with Manchin on Biden’s Build Back Better bill. Until a few days ago, it appeared Manchin had finally agreed to vote for a version pared to the bone at his insistence. However, Manchin now says he won’t vote for the bill if it contains new spending to fight climate change.

To recap, Republicans and Democrats each hold 50 seats in the Senate. Vice President Kamala Harris, who presides over the upper chamber, can break tie votes, giving Democrats the majority when all 50 vote in unison. By being a contrarian, Manchin has positioned himself as Democrats’ swing vote, able to make or break his party’s success in Congress as well as the climate-action promises that helped Biden win the presidency.

On climate and other issues, Manchin agrees to support his party’s bills, then changes his mind. His fickleness is especially troubling in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling. Congress has been gridlocked on climate change for decades. The fallback has been limits on greenhouse gas pollution by the  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But the court ruled that EPA can’t regulate the emissions unless Congress gives it explicit authority. Manchin’s wavering along with Republic opposition makes that unlikely.

Worldwide ripples

The ripple effect of Manchin’s flip-flops extends worldwide and far into the future. The United States is responsible for more than 200 years of climate-changing pollution. We remain the second-largest source of gases that pose the most serious threat to civilization next to all-out nuclear war.

By preventing Biden from keeping America’s promise to the world and his promises to voters, Manchin is very likely a factor in the president’s low approval rating and the public perception that even in the majority, Democrats in Congress can’t get things done.

Manchin is not alone

Aside from Manchin’s opposition, the Republican Party and its members in Congress have been monolithic for decades in denying that climate change is real, undermining public confidence in climate science, and blocking climate legislation. They filibustered the Build Back Better bill and successfully blocked past attempts to confront climate change, even with market-based approaches.

Over the decades, states have helped fill the federal leadership void. Still, it’s unlikely the United States can meet its obligations to the international community, and the international community will meet its obligations to future generations with the U.S. government sitting on the sidelines.

Manchin’s blatant conflict

It would be one thing if Manchin had America’s interests at heart as the Senate’s key swing vote, but there is no more blatant example of a congressman with a conflict of interest.

He chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a singularly important assignment because of the climate crisis. Yet, his objectivity is in doubt. West Virginia is America’s second-biggest coal-producing state and one of the highest-ranking states regarding the economic contributions of oil and gas.

Next, Manchin has a personal financial interest in strengthening the coal economy. He made $5.6 million from 2010 through 2020 from a coal mining and support company. In 2020 alone, he received nearly $492,000 from the company, almost three times his Senate salary, according to the New York Times. He receives more campaign money from oil, gas, mining and coal sources than any other member of Congress, more than $1 million so far in 2021-2022, although he’s not up for reelection for three more years.

With the August recess and the midterm elections coming up, Manchin has run out the legislative clock with his flip-flops on the Build Back Better bill. If he keeps the Senate in climate limbo and Republicans win in November, he will have succeeded in stalling the nation’s transition to clean energy.

Republican allies?

One wonders whether Schumer would have better spent his time across the aisle. Since 2019, several Senate Republicans have been members of a bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus to “advocate for Congress to play a central role in addressing the (climate) challenge.”

“We recognize the importance of American leadership in addressing our changing climate,” the Caucus website explains. “Republicans and Democrats have to work together, compromise, and find common ground.”

Caucus members include Republicans Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Linsey Graham (R-S.C.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). Would they have been willing to negotiate a climate-action bill separated from the other elements of Build Back Better? Or are they merely greenwashing their credentials for the 58 percent of Americans who say the federal government is doing too little on this issue?

Regardless, given the time wasted attempting to please Manchin, he should pay a price for what he’s done. The Senate Democrat Campaign Committee should take to West Virginia’s airwaves to let voters know what Manchin’s actions mean for them. As the New York Times reported last fall, the state’s hilly terrain leaves Manchin’s constituents “more exposed to worsening floods than anywhere else in the country.” The state leads the nation in flood risks for power stations, roads, fire stations and police departments. West Virginia ties with Louisiana for the most schools and business properties at risk. In Farmington, Manchin’s hometown, global warming increases the danger of flooding from Buffalo Creek.

As I’ve written before, Manchin is Lucy; Schumer and Biden are his Charlie Brown. While Manchin keeps teeing up the pigskin and yanking it away, fossil fuels keep polluting and the goalposts keep moving farther away. Democrats should have found another game long ago.

William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a bipartisan policy think tank unaffiliated with the White House.

Tags Biden Chuck Schumer Joe Manchin Kamala Harris
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