THE BLOG

What Should Congress Do on Climate?

08/14/2007 01:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I've had the Lieberman-Warner climate bill proposal (PDF) printed out for a couple weeks now, but still haven't gotten around to reading it. Bad blogger! The general assessment from other quarters seems to be: eh. Medium. The big flaw is that it gives around 25% of its permits away. Bad, bad, bad, but maybe necessary to get coal-state legislators on board. On the positive side, it's got a cost-containment mechanism that, unlike Bingaman's escape hatch, would hold fast to long-term environmental targets. Bill Scher has a good rundown and comes out in about the same place.

The $6 million question for climateers remains: what to do now and what to save for later?

Here's the logic as I see it: Anything Bush will sign into law is weak. It's practically axiomatic: you can't get anything good on energy past the Bush/Cheney/Exxon/ADM administration. If it's good, it doesn't get past; if it gets past, it's not good.

Bushies continue to resist a mandatory cap, and that's step one in, you know, a cap and trade system. If they can be persuaded to accept a mandatory cap, it's likely by a raft of concessions that will hobble the bill's raison d'être: discouraging GHG emissions. And Bush will probably add a signing statement: "If I ever decide I don't like your silly cap, I can pee in your corn flakes." Cheney's last, triumphant middle finger to the dirty hippies.

If a good bill can't get signed into law, what do you do? I see three options:

  1. Go big to highlight contrast: Put together the biggest, boldest bill possible, rally as much Democratic support as possible, and watch it get defeated by the Filibusterin' 110th Republicans. Let the American public know exactly where the two parties stand and what they can expect if they boost Dem majorities and elect a Dem president.
  2. Go down the center to highlight bipartisanship: Put together a moderate, bipartisan bill, and get it through Congress. Create a baseline for future legislation. Announce that climate change is a mainstream issue on which any future president will have to act. The more moderate the bill, the more extreme and discredited Bush will look by vetoing it.
  3. Go ... nowhere: No sense going through what the press will inevitably call a defeat. Just pass other energy bills and bide your time on cap-and-trade. Do the legwork to educate Congress and build support for some tough requirements. Rely on a Dem president and larger Dem majorities in Congress in 2009 -- an environment in which a much more ambitious bill can be passed.

There's widespread fear that this is a one-shot deal -- the best chance we'll ever have to get climate legislation right. If something weak gets locked in, we'll be stuck with it for a long while.

I tend to think that fear is somewhat exaggerated. Regardless, the incentives all run the other way. Pelosi and Reid want an accomplishment. The Republicans and their fossil friends no longer believe in their "permanent majority" -- they're feeling some pressure to act now before things get worse. There's not a lot of constituencies pushing for waiting.

So #1 may be the best case scenario. However, Congressional Dems have so internalized the fear of looking strong or "extreme" that it seems unlikely to me. No. 2 may be the best we can hope for.