Washington, DC -- Thomas Jefferson compared the US Senate to a saucer, where legislation heated in the House by the fires of public passion could be poured to cool. The Senate has played that function -- but more often its processes are a particularly gruesome form of sausage-making. The Senate this week completed work on its first important energy bill of the year -- HR 6, which, as it originally came out of the House, dealt only with cutting back on subsidies to Big Oil. The final version passed by the Senate contains the first legislative mandate for tougher vehicle fuel efficiency standards since the 1980s. Even though these requirements are flawed, the fact that 65 senators voted for better, more efficient cars, trucks and SUVs in the face of major opposition from the American auto industry and the Michigan delegation is HUGE. What should have been much easier provisions to pass -- extensions of energy tax credits for renewable fuels and requirements that all utilities use renewables to provide at least 15% of their electricity -- were never even voted on. The bill also contains some poorly designed mandates for biofuels -- ones that really won't do the best job of encouraging cellulosic ethanol, the only type of biofuel that has the potential to fundamentally alter our dependence on oil. And the tax provision of the original HR 6 -- taking subsidies away from Big Oil -- are entirely gone. Rumoured provisions to use taxpayer dollars to jumpstart a very dirty liquid coal industry were, thankfully, also absent.
How did this strange dish emerge? Well, by the middle of the week, when two bad amendments to subsidize liquid coal were defeated -- the one the coal industry really wanted, by Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning, 39-55, and the other, a much milder compromise authored by Montana Democrat John Tester, 33-61, two things were clear. First, a majority of the Senate -- most Democrats and a solid bloc of Republicans -- felt compelled to break our addiction to oil and vote for higher fuel economy standards, renewable energy, efficiency, and biofuels. There is a majority in the Senate for a new energy future. Second, the Republican leadership, most of the Republican caucus, and a minority of Democrats, will do anything to prevent action. Big Carbon is not going to go quietly into that good night.
This bloc is simply determined to prevent the majority from being able to vote. They successfully filibustered the renewable tax credits and the accompanying changes in Big Oil's subsidies; even though the provisions had overwhelming support (57-36), it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. They also used a parliamentary maneuver to prevent a vote to stop the filibuster on a renewable portfolio standard, even though 60 Senators did support cutting off debate and moving to a vote. They tried desperately to stop the entire bill from moving -- and the bill escaped by a single vote, 61-32.
So, of the big provisions -- renewables, efficiency, biofuels and CAFE standards -- the one that was most controversial -- CAFE -- came out best, and the most popular, renewables, come out worst. Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico today attacked an attempt to compromise on national renewable electricity standards, calling a new plan floated in the Senate a "one-size-fits-all approach." Interestingly, Domenici, who led the filibuster against renewables, comes from a state where the renewable standard is much tougher than the modest 15% contained in the Senate bill. The renewables provision was offered by Domenici's New Mexico colleague Jeff Bingaman, and supported by his Governor, Bill Richardson. But in the topsy-turvy world of the Senate, that mattered less than Domenici's drive to deny Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a victory. And why did the Senate vote, after thirty years of stalling, to strengthen fuel efficiency standards? Because there are really two auto industries -- the not-so-Big Three, and the Japanese and European manufacturers. Detroit simply dug in and refused to compromise at all -- the import manufacturers then struck a compromise, one that is much easier for them to comply with than it is for Detroit. The net effect is potentially huge progress -- if the loopholes inserted in the bill can be taken out in conference.
After that, senators dedicated to Detroit ganged up with anti-progress Republicans and almost generated enough votes to kill the whole bill. (Take a look at the roll-call on ending debate on the whole bill and you can see where Big Carbon and the Big Three still hold sway.)
The gauntlet has now been thrown down for Majority Leader Harry Reid. He has to bring renewables and ending oil subsidies back to the floor even stronger and show the old guard who runs the Senate; Reid must do what every Senate Majority Leader struggles to do -- show that he can use delay to hurt obstructionist minorities, rather than allowing the endless Senate clock to be their only weapon.
Never watch sausage being made.But it's important to note that even a year ago there was nothing like a majority on the Senate floor for any of these provisions. Congress is changing because America is speaking out. And speaking out in creative ways. In Iowa, the Sierra Club and the Steelworkers have united behind ReEnergize Iowa, a platform that calls for 80% reductions in CO2 by 2050, the creation of millions of new jobs in the new energy economy, and fair trade policies that make all this possible. When musicians Ben Folds and John Mayer came to Des Moines, our ReEnergize America organizers, Whit Jones and Joe Ritchie, landed in organizer's nirvana, as this email from Joe describes.
ReEnergize Iowa* team member Whit Jones was in downtown Des Moines yesterday afternoon with his girlfriend Claire, a "huge Ben Folds fan." Claire sighted Mr. Folds walking down the street, and after some driving maneuvers that Whit described as "not life endangering, but certainly worthy of a ticket," Whit and Claire stopped at a red light and waved him over to the car. They shook hands, and left him with a ReEnergize Iowa flyer in his hand.
That evening,...after the opening number of Ben Folds' set, he stood up and started emptying his pockets, saying that someone had given him a flyer that he wanted to sing about. After giving up hope of finding it, he settled back into his normal set.
Meanwhile, John Mayer strutted across the floor of the stage mid-song while playing the tambourine and delivered our leaflet to Ben. When the song ended, he told the crowd he'd met a lot of great people in Des Moines, and he was inspired by us to write a song. The band started rocking, and he started singing lyrics directly off the flyer (I believe this makes me his new lyricist). The song lasted for an electrifying two and half minutes of perfectly coupled climate lyrics and synthesized solos (check out what the Des Moines Register had to say about it).
I sat agape as I absorbed what had just happened. Ben Folds, who I had been perfecting my air piano to since age 13, had just performed a song about the project I had spent so many months planning and making a reality. There were now thousands of adolescent girls and popped collar boys clamoring to get their hands on our flyers. Ben Folds had just delivered us to organizing nirvana.