Last week the Bush administration went aground on the shoals of global warming. This week the old guard in Congress tried to steer between the Scylla of public demand for action on climate, and the Charybdis of their deep fealty to the old politics of carbon, cars, coal, and oil. The senior member of the House, Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, put his stamp of approval on a very bad proposal by Virginia Congressman Rick Boucher. Boucher's bill would mandate some very modest improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency -- but only after 2022.
It would also preempt much tougher fuel economy rules already passed by California and 12 other states, and prevent the EPA from acting on the recent Supreme Court ruling requiring it to regulate CO2.
In effect, the Boucher-Dingell proposal would represent two steps backward, and no step forward, from the status quo. It is actually weaker than what President Bush proposed in his State of the Union Message.
And this was not the only reactionary signal from Congress this week. In the House Appropriations Committee, a 30-35 vote doomed the bipartisan Hinchey-Wolf amendment to cut funding for the idea that the federal government should exercise the power of eminent domain over private property in wide swaths of the Northeast and Southwest on behalf of private utilities seeking to build unneeded transmission lines.
The states rose in outrage at Dingell's proposal, led by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; counties and local government can be counted on to revive Hinchey-Wolf when the Appropriations bill gets to the House floor. Once again Congress is showing itself to be out of step with the rest of the country.
But the House leadership is paying close attention. House Speaker Pelosi promptly sent Dingell and Boucher a strong signal, saying "Any proposal that affects California's landmark efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or eliminates the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions will not have my support."
And 136 House members, including most of Pelosi's closest allies, have already cosponsored Congressman Ed Markey's 40-mpg fuel-efficiency bill. "This discussion draft doesn't step up to the urgent challenge facing us," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) at the start of today's Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the Boucher draft. "It blinks, and then it steps back." Waxman said he would offer a substitute bill when the committee marks up the "deeply flawed" legislation.
While the Appropriations Committee narrowly sided with the advocates of federal preemption of local land use control in the transmission corridor issues, the Committee's leadership also signaled that they were serious about global warming, indicating that they were going to require the EPA to propose rules to regulate CO2 by July 1, 2008, far faster than the Bush Administration had planned.
So Big Carbon's allies in Congress are struggling desperately to postpone effective action. But when smack dab between Scylla and Charybdis is the formidable force of the Speaker of the House, even as skillful a legislative navigator as John Dingell may have to change course and steer the auto industry into the 21st century, the one direction that Detroit has desperately been urging him to avoid.