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Environmental Politics: The Non-sense of the Senate

Parisian gargoyle Notre Dame Cathedral, Courtesy of https://unsplash.com/@peterlaster

Yesterday the Green New Deal, in the form of a resolution, was brought directly to the Senate floor for a vote. S. J. Res. 8 made it into the full Senate through a procedural ploy that limited public debate by side-stepping what should have been a routine referral to a standing subject matter committee, e.g., Energy and Natural Resources, for open hearings.

As expected, the measure failed to garner the needed votes. Had it succeeded, it would have put the Senate on record denying the proposition that the Federal Government has a duty to create a Green New Deal.

The ostensible purpose of the resolution was to express the opinion of the Senate on the concept of the Green New Deal, as it has been sketched out in S. Res. 59 and H. Res. 109 by its more than 100 sponsors and co-sponsors. In Congressional parlance, these are known as “sense of” resolutions.

The election of a Democratic House majority has radically altered the national dialogue on climate change. It is fair to say that the primary catalyst for the change has been Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and very progressive proponents of the Green New Deal like the Sunshine Movement and Justice Democrats. Whether or not one agrees with their tactics and proposed policies, there’s no denying they’ve struck the match that caused climate to burst upon the 2019-2020 political scene in a way no one imagined before last November’s midterm elections.

Notwithstanding the outcome of the vote on S. J. Res. 8, the climate cat is out of the bag. There’s very little Senate Majority Leader McConnell, the White House, the fossil fuel industry and conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation can do to stuff the newly freed feline back where it came from other than continuing to tell tales of Democratic socialists wanting to morally and financially bankrupt the nation.

McConnell was so sure that the Democrats had blundered with the GND that he alone was the sponsor of Senate resolution—S. J. Res 8. McConnell had two primary reasons for bringing his GND resolution up for a vote. The first was to play what he thinks will be the Republicans’ trump card in the 2020 elections—accusing Democrats of wanting to turn the US into a socialist country. A country in which the right of “real” Americans to hold an assault rifle in one hand and a 'hamberder' in the other is suspended—a ruinous nation like Venezuela whose name would be changed to the United States of Socialists.

The Majority Leader’s second reason to bring the GND to a vote was to test the resolve and capacity of Minority Leader Schumer and Senate Democrats to toe the same line. It’s a hand that has been dealt numerous times before in the Senate by both Democratic and Republican majority leaders. Harry Reid (D-NV) played the same game in 2011 over Medicare vouchers proposed by then Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI).

The gambit is not unique to the Senate. In fact, House Democrats are about to return McConnell’s favor by introducing a resolution[i] of their own. The rumored concurrent resolution will “demand” that the US remains a signatory on the Paris Climate Accord and obligated to meet the reduction targets promised by President Obama.

McConnell’s maneuver failed as both a substantive measure and political ploy. Although three Democrats, Manchin (D-WV), Sinema (D-AZ), and Jones (D-AL), and one independent, King (I-ME), voted with the Republicans, 43 Senate Democrats heeded Schumer’s call to vote themselves “present” but unaccounted for in the final tally. Because of the form of McConnell’s resolution[ii], it needed a super majority of 60 votes to pass.[iii]

The telling sign that S. J. Res 8 was recognized by Democrats and climate hawks as a ruse is the reaction of ultra-progressive groups. Lauren Maunus, a political organizer with the Sunrise Movement, expressed the organization’s opinion this way:

Our strategy all along was to not put too much focus on the vote, because we think it's a sham vote, and that Mitch and most of the GOP elites are not at all intending to use this vote as a way to actually take action on climate change.

The Sunrise Movement is not only one of the groups that supported Ocasio-Cortez’s run for the House. It is an organization that calls on Democrats to refuse campaign contributions from fossil fuel interests and considers the GND a litmus test for candidates running in the 2020 election. The disdain of the Sunrise Movement was shared by both moderate and progressive climate hawks alike.

The only impact of McConnell’s resolution strategy on moderate and progressive Democrats was to remind them that they all have similar objectives—if different preferred courses of action for getting there. McConnell and the White House are badly under-estimating the change in the political environment that has taken place because of the 2018 elections.

Trump and McConnell are also under-estimating the willingness of Congressional Republicans to continue their absolute denial of climate-science and to stay on the sidelines of the newly charged national dialogue on climate defense and resilience.

Despite the 2018 election loss of nearly every Republican House incumbent who advocated some form of climate defense, e.g., Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Mia Love (R-UT), and their being  vilified by Trump post-election, there remain Republicans in Congress who are genuinely willing, at some level, to engage in a bipartisan dialogue—as opposed to the patent trickery of the S. J. Res. 8 maneuver.

The noticeable shift in denier arguments from science to socialism is in part a product of the increasing number of Republican senators and representatives openly talking—rather than trashing—the evidence-based realities of Earth’s warming. Some, like Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), are willing publicly to admit humans have something to do with the problem and governments something to do with the solution—even going so far as proposing their own versions of retreaded World War II mobilizations. What is it about the 1930s and 40s?

The day before the debate on McConnell’s GND resolution, the Senior Senator from Tennessee spoke on the Senate floor:

Mr. President [of the Senate], I believe climate change is real. I believe that human emissions are a major cause of climate change. And I believe the Democratic plan for climate change — which the senator from Texas [John Cornyn] spoke about, the Green New Deal, is so far out in left field that not many are going to take it seriously. (emphasis added)

Alexander, along with the other 52 Senate Republicans, voted with McConnell on the GND as a show of solidarity with the Senate Majority Leader and to keep Trump off their backs. Now Senator Alexander has announced his intention to propose a New Manhattan Project (NMP) for clean energy.

The NMP would support research on advanced nuclear reactors, batteries, carbon capture, electric vehicles, and other low or no carbon energy technologies. The Senator is proposing to double the current federal budget in these areas. Senator Alexander’s proposal joins other talked about bipartisan climate defense measures like a carbon tax and carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration.

In recent days there have been reports of Representative Matt Gaetz’s (R-FL) intention to introduce a counter to the Green New Deal to be called the Green Real Deal. As first reported by Politico, the resolution will call for emissions reductions mainly through investments in carbon capture and nuclear as well as expanded tax incentives for energy efficiency.

These Republican proposals are miles—if not worlds—apart from the GND. However, they are also miles away from McConnell’s trying to hoist Senate Democrats on their own GND petard and what the Trump administration is doing to the environment through deregulation and its efforts to turn national landmarks and the nation’s coastal waters over to fossil fuel interests for exploration and exploitation.

It takes some guts for a Republican lawmaker to recognize climate change as a substantial problem and to propose ways to deal with it. Trump was on Capitol Hill doing victory laps following the Mueller report the day of GND vote. He told Republican senators not to beat the Democrats too completely on climate change because he intended to campaign on it.

I remain cautious of Republicans bearing environmental gifts. At the same time, I believe that the newly charged national dialogue will result in more Republican lawmakers coming to the defense of the environment—if for no other reason than voters putting climate at or very near the top of their political priority list.  

Going forward it is critical for Congressional Democrats not to engage—nor appear to be engaged—in the same senseless gamesmanship that McConnell has just tried in the Senate. It is not to say that no “sense of resolutions” should be introduced nor that all Republican policy and program suggestions will be made in good faith.

There are reasonable distinctions that can and should be made. For example, the proposed sense of the Congress resolution to keep the nation a signatory on the Paris Climate Accord is both straightforward and in-line with what most voters want—even Trump’s voters. In Figure 1, there are no red and blue states. There are only states where 50 percent or more of Americans who support participation in the Accord.

Figure 1

The Percent of Americans by State Who Support Participation in the Paris Agreement

With Republicans still holding sway over the White House and Senate nothing in the way of substantive federal legislation is likely to happen until after the 2020 votes are counted. House Democrats, through the committee system, have committed to using the time to educate themselves and their constituents about what the experts have to say about the causes, consequences, and proposing and refining climate defense and response policies and initiatives.

Similarly, Republican climate defenders recognize that with Democrats in control of the House nothing they are likely to consider substantive is likely to find its way to the President’s desk. They too will be using the run-up to the 2020 elections to consider and refine their post-election positions.

I urge both Republicans and Democrats to use these next months not only to develop and test their own proposed policies to formulate—for lack of a better term—rules of engagement on climate matters.

Too much of the dialogue across the aisle isn’t a dialogue at all. It is an ad nauseum constant repetition of contentions. Take, for example, the disagreements between deniers and defenders over the recent UN Report and the Trump administration’s Fourth National Climate Assessment The essence of the arguments was something akin to:

Climate-science is settled. No, it’s not. Yes, it is.

NO, IT’S NOT.

YES, IT IS…and so on and so forth.

These types of responses are the very definition of gridlock.

For it to be a constructive dialogue, the parties need to be more probative in their discussions. Rather than saying again only louder, yes, it is, a follow-up question like “how then would you define settled science?” might be asked and answered. The answer might even move the discussion closer to a resolution of the sticking point.

The rules of engagement not only need to be worked out; they need to be made public. The ultimate arbiters of the nation’s climate defense policies are voters; and, they are entitled not only to know what their representatives are proposing but their willingness, capacity, and ability to make the deals necessary to put the needed measures in place.

I recognize how difficult it may be to find common ground between a side that rejects the notion that private markets must be told rather than asked what to do and a side that rejects the notion of a strong central government and believes that long-term research is the answer to a near-term problem.

Difficult or not, it must be done. There’s a balance to be found between what’s needed and what’s politically possible. IMHO—the parties just aren’t looking hard enough.

To stop what the majority of Americans are convinced is a cataclysmic event just waiting to happen, combatants must become colleagues. To paraphrase President Reagan—Republicans and Democrats tear down your walls!


[i] As of the date of this article, it is unclear whether the rumored resolution on the Paris climate accord is H. Con. Res. 15 which is already in the queue or a replacement.

[ii] Joint resolutions are not typically used for expressions of congressional opinion, because joint resolutions generally require presidential approval. Joint resolutions are also treated much the same as proposed legislation and referred to the requisite committees for consideration—after which the committee may report it out for the consideration of the full Senate. See https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/98-825.pdf for a more complete discussion on “Sense of” Resolutions.

[iii] The question debated on the Senate floor was technically not on the substance of the Resolution. The motion voted on was to close the debate. A cloture vote, according to Senate rules requires 60 “ayes.”

 

Lead image: Parisian gargoyle Notre Dame Cathedral, Courtesy of https://unsplash.com/@peterlaster

Joel Stronberg's picture

Thank Joel for the Post!

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