Framing Science

At the Washington Post today , Juliet Eilperin and Michael Grunwald report on the diverging priorities of House speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic chairmen John Dingell and Henry Waxman, conflicts that might stall or even derail meaningful legislation on climate change. Last week, in a new column on Science & Policy at the journal Nature, David Goldston shared the news article’s outlook, but added that similar personal rifts in the Senate might also delay a bill for a “couple Congresses.”

According to the Washington Post report, Dingell’s ties to industry and labor unions means that he is likely to want to move slowly on any legislation. The Detroit congressman is not alone, other Democratic members are also likely to be reluctant to move fast because of their own ties to special interests and powerful lobbies. Meanwhile, Pelosi’s efforts to centralize climate legislation in a new committee on energy independence has ruffled the feathers of Henry Waxman, who had planned to move legislation through his Energy and Commerce committee. Here’s what they report:

Several [Democrats] with mixed feelings about drastic carbon regulations — including Rep. Rick Boucher, who represents a coal-heavy Virginia district and chairs the subcommittee on energy and air quality — discussed working with Republicans to defeat the new committee on the House floor.

The strict emissions cuts that Pelosi supports had no chance in the GOP Congress, but they still face an uphill climb. Carbon-reliant industries including coal, oil, agriculture and manufacturing will resist any strong legislation, a position that will pose serious dilemmas for Democrats in districts where those industries and their unions hold sway. Some representatives of low-income minority districts are also concerned that a climate bill would slap heavy energy costs on their constituents.

Even if Pelosi manages to finagle a bill through the House, there is the problem of the Senate, where global-warming skeptic James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) has lost his chairmanship to climate-conscious Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) but has threatened a filibuster. And President Bush seems unlikely to sign anything too far-reaching.

David Goldston, in his new column on Science & Policy (Sub Req], predicted similar problems, and not just in the House, but on the Senate side as well. Goldston, formerly the staff director for the House committee on Science, wrote that with multiple bills proposed in the Senate, personalities and political ambition may be the main obstacle. Moreover, once a bill comes forward, with Dems in charge, and faced with the possibility of actual passage, it won’t be as easy for some Senators to climb on board:

First, the key Senate players — Democrats Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Barbara Boxer of California and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, and Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Pete Domenici of New Mexico — will have to figure out how to work together after years of offering up competing approaches.

Then they will have to decide if they want to compromise enough with the rest of their colleagues for the Senate to pass a bill, or whether they would be satisfied with building momentum for a more ambitious measure. The prospect of real action on climate change might actually make it harder to garner votes for a far-reaching bill. In past Congresses, some senators were willing to vote for a greenhouse-gas bill put forth by Senators McCain and Lieberman; such a vote signalled that they wanted to do something about climate change, but they didn’t have to worry about the details because the bill clearly wasn’t going anywhere with the Republicans in control of Congress.

In the House, Goldston writes that the industry-labor alliance in key manufacturing states is the central challenge to passing legislation. In a follow up interview on NPR’s Science Friday, he noted that while emission limits were the goal for most advocates, he forecasted that it might take a “couple Congresses” to actually get a bill passed:

I mean and so everyone seems to be moving in that direction [emission caps]. Now once everyone agrees that that’s the direction to go on, there’s a lot of specific questions that are very difficult to work out, about the impact on individual industries, about how you allocate credits and so forth. So that’s going to be an arduous process. But it’s important that it actually start. It often takes a couple Congresses to get something through, and nothing obviously happens unless the debate gets started.

Though Goldston views the road ahead for climate legislation to be tough, one thing has already changed, the issue has moved from non-agenda status under the GOP to higher agenda status now that Dems are in charge. Here’s how he described the change in his interview at NPR Science Friday (emphasis added):

The main power the leadership has is the power to schedule. And so – and that’s true at both the committee level and at the level of the entire chamber. So what’s happened in recent years is it’s basically been next to impossible to get climate change legislation onto the floor of the House or the Senate. In the Senate, sometimes things could get in through amendments, but only rarely. There was – the Senate a couple years ago passed a non-binding resolution simply saying that climate change was real and we ought to do something about. It didn’t say anything specific. When that went to conference with the House, it was there on a Saturday morning in July, that language lasted about three seconds.

So the House hasn’t even really been able to have even the beginnings of a debate or even hearings particularly much on climate change up until now. All that will change. Now I think the work of actually putting together a bill is going to be hard, and certainly I don’t see how it can be done on the very short timescale that the speaker has announced so far. But I think just getting this debate started is a 180-degree change from where things have been.