Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Waxman appears to win over some Brown Dog Democrats

Some of you may recall that last November, when Henry Waxman successfully challenged John Dingell, I predicted that Waxman would be far more likely to produce effective and aggressive legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The latest news – that Waxman may have secured agreement from enough Democrats on his committee to pass compromise legislation – appears to confirm my prediction.

Obviously, this is still a work in progress. (And it is a compromise. There’s a reason it’s called politics.) The actual revised bill language hasn’t been made public, and some members of the Waxman panel still seem to be hedging their bets. And the Republicans seem to be doing little more than playing negative politics. (They are irresponsibly holding hostage President Obama’s nominee to run the EPA air pollution control program, and, as you will recall, were aggressively shopping around that OMB memo yesterday. Next up, apparently, will be hundreds of mud-slinging amendments to the Waxman bill.)

Even so, Waxman deserves congratulations. He is on the verge of a landmark accomplishment. (His emission reduction target for 2020 – 17% -- is a retreat from his earlier draft, but it is actually more aggressive than the 14% target put forward by President Obama.)

And he’s had to cope not only with the snarling Republicans, but with Brown Dog Democrats dedicated to protecting industrial constituents. Waxman is trying to make carbon chicken salad. Only time will tell if the mayonnaise has been left in the heat too long.

On the critical question of how to handle carbon permits – auction them or give a major share of them away for free to big polluters – perhaps now we can have a real debate as the legislation moves forward. President Obama, of course, has favored an auction approach, with most of the proceeds being returned to taxpayers. As part of the compromise here, permits worth perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars will be distributed for free to electricity distribution companies and other industries. It did send a chill up my spine to read in this morning’s Washington Post that the Edison Electric Institute likes the plan. (No wonder an Associated Press story this week described the concession as a “major win for industry.”)

If you haven’t seen it, there was excellent testimony last week from the head of the Congressional Budget Office who warned that giving allowances for free to local distribution companies was a topic that needs “further research” and might increase the overall cost of the program. CBO also pointed out that an auction approach, by contrast, would permit the government to give rebates to low-income households and other taxpayers.

A key question moving forward is how consumers would be protected under the strategy of the compromise legislation, which appears to rely on state public utility commissions – very political bodies – to make sure the electricity companies don’t play financial games with their potential windfall. We will look to see if the fine print of the evolving legislation deals with this.

Another question: if an auction approach is a good idea in a decade or two, why isn’t it a good idea now? (The answer is probably related to the Brown Dogs and the campaign contributions they have received from companies likely to receive free emission permits.)


jt said...


Thanks for your assessment of the bill's progress. What I've been wondering, as this bill has worked its way through the subcommittee, is why there has been so little mobilization targeting the voters in these "brown dog" districts. We need to convince these representatives that clean energy and climate change are on the minds of their voters - it's going to take an Obama-style door-to-door, everyday campaign, to do that. Are any national/regional organizations attempting this?



Frank O'Donnell, Clean Air Watch said...

We've been told that indeed there has been a lot of organizing in these congressional districts. Also paid media advertising the phone calls to local congressional offices.

Of course, it is tough to offset those big campaign contributions from the affected industries.

jt said...

Thanks, Frank. Do you know any specifics on who's been running those campaigns?

Industrial campaign contributions are certainly formidable. That's why the only way to counter them is through the grassroots - environmental lobbies will never have enough money to compete on the contribution terrain.

Frank O'Donnell, Clean Air Watch said...

I know the League of Conservation Voters has done some. See at

So has the National Wildlife Federation.

There may be others.