Energy push losing power in Congress

Bipartisan hopes for a rare compromise on energy that would expand conservation programs are dimming as lawmakers face a daunting political divide over new federal spending.

Lawmakers entered the new Congress optimistic that energy efficiency legislation could reach President Obama’s desk, but the vast gulf between the parties on taxes and the role of government has clouded the outlook on a broad bill.

ADVERTISEMENT

While Democrats want to drive down power use in buildings and factories through tax credits and grants, Republicans say any legislation that increases federal spending is a nonstarter, and instead they support measures aimed at reducing the government’s energy use.

Advocates of a “big deal” on energy efficiency acknowledge they face an uphill climb.

“Anything attached to spending is going to be tough over the next two years. But then again, I think we have to try,” Rep. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE (R-Colo.) told The Hill.

“The problem I see is that if there’s any new program or any money, then it’s something that won’t get any kind of traction in the House,” said Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.).

Republicans and Democrats in both chambers characterize energy efficiency as low-hanging fruit. They often tout the economic benefits of helping consumers and businesses cut energy costs, and say efficiency legislation could boost U.S. businesses.

“What’s particularly appealing about energy efficiency as an area in which to legislate is that has enjoyed bipartisan support, it is an area that should attract support from the House and it is an area that is broadly agreed to be — one that should be — above politics,” Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSunday Talk Shows: Lawmakers look ahead to House vote on articles of impeachment, Senate trial Senators zero in on shadowy court at center of IG report DOJ inspector general refutes Trump claim that Obama tapped his wires MORE (D-Del.) told The Hill.

A sweeping overhaul might have a chance in the Senate, where Sens. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — House passes sweeping Pelosi bill to lower drug prices | Senate confirms Trump FDA pick | Trump officials approve Medicaid work requirements in South Carolina Senate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA Senate panel advances Turkey sanctions bill despite Trump objections MORE (D-N.H.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanOn The Money: Trump, China announce 'Phase One' trade deal | Supreme Court takes up fight over Trump financial records | House panel schedules hearing, vote on new NAFTA deal Here are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump Lawmakers call for investigation into program meant to help student loan borrowers with disabilities MORE (R-Ohio) plan to revive a comprehensive energy efficiency bill that enjoyed bipartisan committee support last session.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will put its weight behind that measure, as committee Chairman Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senators zero in on shadowy court at center of IG report Trump administration approves Medicaid work requirements in South Carolina MORE (D-Ore.) and ranking member Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiIs a trap being set for Trump in the Senate trial? The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial MORE (R-Alaska) both back it.

The bill is largely expected to remain the same as last session’s version, according to Rob Mosher, legislative director with the Alliance to Save Energy, which was heavily involved with the bill last year.

If it mirrors last session’s effort, the measure would set more stringent efficiency standards for new building codes, create new tax credits, provide funding for research and development and establish state revolving grant program for efficiency upgrades for commercial and industrial consumers.

But the overhaul is likely dead on arrival in the Republican House, where conservatives are quick to rally against legislation that they see as meddling in the marketplace. 

“I always think we need to take a free-market approach to these things, and others have a different idea of where they think we ought to provide enormous government incentives,” Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) told The Hill.

The era of belt-tightening that has taken hold in Washington is one of the main obstacles to a deal. 

Democrats say Congress needs to double down on efficiency investments now to see greater returns in the future. 

“It’s hard for me to ever characterize where some of the colleagues come from,” Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) told The Hill. “I would love an aggressive agenda on energy efficiency and spurring that with tax credits or incentives.”

But Republicans say the government simply can’t afford a new federal program that might grow more expensive over time.

“We have to proceed with some caution when it comes to tax credits,” said Gardner, who has taken the GOP lead on promoting energy savings performance contracts.

House Republicans singled out performance contracts as their preferred path forward on energy efficiency during a recent House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Energy and Power hearing.

The agreements enable government agencies to contract with private firms to make energy efficiency improvements. Whatever savings the government sees from the energy improvements would be passed along to the companies performing the work.

Many Democrats, however, said such measures are toothless.

“It doesn’t seem like there was a lot of agreement” between the approaches from House Democrats and Republicans, Matsui said.

Given the political landscape, lawmakers might have to settle for more modest bills that encourage the government and consumers to cut energy use. One option would be requiring upgrades for various appliances through legislation. 

Mosher, of the Alliance to Save Energy, said energy efficiency advocates might also wrangle some concessions through the appropriations process or by tinkering with expiring tax provisions. But the tax reform effort will likely keep that on hold, he said.

If legislation stalls, it’s possible that the president could use his executive powers to wage an administration-wide efficiency push.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocrats rip Barr over IG statement: 'Mouthpiece' for Trump Trump brings pardoned soldiers on stage at Florida fundraiser: report Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill MORE (D-R.I.) have pushed Obama to use unilateral action on energy efficiency and other issues to reduce U.S. carbon emissions.

“There’s a lot that the administration can do on its own,” Waxman, the top House Energy and Commerce Democrat, told The Hill.