Why Environmentalists Should Support Filibuster Reform

06/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There is a great deal of consternation among most major environmental groups over the collapse of the Kerry, Lieberman, Graham tri-partisan effort to create an energy bill that could possibly pass the Senate.

Sen. Graham, the somewhat independent Republican senator from South Carolina, walked away from his global warming legislation on Friday over reports that the White House and Senate Majority Leader Reid have placed a high priority on passing immigration reform.

Opinion is deeply divided over Senator Graham's motives. Is it another Republican ploy to delay, defer, and then abandon progress? Or is it a legitimate assessment of the reality of the Senate's capacity to handle serious legislative matters?

Similarly, opinion is deeply divided over whether the tri-partisan legislation is even worth passing. The Environmental Defense Fund sends out emails praising the legislation as the very best thing going and urging unparalleled efforts to pass it now. Most big environmental groups applaud the legislation but suggest that it be strengthened in several critical ways.

My own organization -- CREDO Action -- joins a number of organizations that conclude the legislation should not be passed so long as it adopts the coal industry's stance on two key issues -- gutting EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases and pre-empting any state legislation that is stronger than Federal legislation. Due to the decade's long effort of many environmental groups, there are quite a few states that are way ahead of Washington, and it would be a fundamental betrayal to reverse those efforts. Of course, achieving these reversals and gutting the Clean Air Act is at the top of the list for our dirtiest industries.

I don't know if Senator Graham will rejoin the discussion. My own assessment of the Senate is that it does not matter -- that there are not 60 votes in favor of even this weak legislation, and some stronger environmental senators may vote no as the concessions mount.

But surely this debacle should motivate the environmental community to join an effort to change, if not eliminate, the Senate filibuster rules. One of the most cited justifications for making concessions to special interests now is that the Senate will be worse next year. And this is almost surely true if the rules remain the same.

Senator Graham would be irrelevant to the global warming debate if the Senate followed majority votes. The rules governing filibusters are set by the Senate itself - they are not part of the Constitution or any legislation. The two leading contenders to replace Sen. Reid if he is defeated in November - Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chuck Schumer of New York - are both publicly on record in favor of reforming the filibuster. Most of the newer Democratic senators are also on board and unless the Democrats lose control of the Senate, there is likely to be an effort at the beginning of the session, to change the rules.

Health care reform would not have passed if subject to the filibuster. Even today, the Senate GOP plus Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson voted to block even debate from occurring on financial reform.

The environmental movement has largely stood on the sidelines during fights over issues outside of explicitly environmental matters, such as campaign finance reform, media reform, and court nominations.

There will soon be an opportunity to join in. A majority of the American people want action on global warming. There are fifty senators plus Vice President Joe Biden who share their view. Only the filibuster rules stands in the way of passing legislation that is morally necessary.