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Climate Change Bill Wins on Political Energy Boost

If you remember anything from your high school physics class, you may recall the first law of thermodynamics: Energy is conserved; it is neither created nor destroyed, but can be changed from one form to another. That basic law came to mind recently when I was considering the climate change/clean energy bill that passed the House two weeks ago.

[IMGCAP(1)]While I’m always wary of trying to apply the laws of physics to the laws of politics, that hasn’t stopped me yet. (After all, political scientists have made an art, if not a science, of applying the laws of economics to politics.) The procedural politics of the American Clean Energy and Security Act is a classic example of how to convert political energies into law.

While the acronym ACES may conjure-up a confident gambler, the passage of the bill by the House on June 26 was not gambler’s luck. It reflected a carefully designed strategy to pull all the pieces together with a minimal loss of political energy in the process. It was the first big test facing Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) as the new chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and he brilliantly cemented his reputation as a skilled political operative and legislator.

Moreover, it was a major test for the newly emerging partnership between President Barack Obama and the House leadership. Their single-minded drive and dedication to getting a climate change bill passed early is on track. There was never any question that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was relentlessly driving the process, although there may have been some confusion in the House and at the White House as to the sequencing of health care reform and climate change legislation. The same week that the president was making an all-out, nationwide pitch for his health care plan, Pelosi was scheduling the climate change bill for floor action.

Politics is all about timing, and Pelosi knew the health care reform bill would not be ready for prime time prior to the Independence Day recess. (Besides, both parties have used that national holiday over the years as a target for passing an “energy independence— bill.) She knew that finding consensus on the components and financing for health care would be a tougher challenge that would have to wait until later in July.

What makes a major bill like ACES especially difficult (in addition to its 1,200 pages) is its referral to several committees. In this instance, when the bill was introduced on May 15, it was referred not only to Waxman’s Energy Committee, but to eight other panels. When Waxman’s committee formally reported the bill on June 5, two of the committees were instantly discharged while the Speaker gave the other six until June 19 to report.

The most difficult of the remaining committees were Agriculture and Ways and Means. Neither Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) nor Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) were always on the same page as the leadership. Peterson was concerned that the proposed cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions would be devastating for farmers, while Rangel seemed more anxious to do health care first and worry later about the indirect tax implications and costs of cap-and-trade.

When none of the committees met the reporting deadline, they were all discharged — contenting themselves with negotiating any further deals behind the scenes. The key deal, between Waxman and Peterson, had already been struck: The Agriculture Department would retain enforcement authority over agricultural emissions, not the Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s not unusual for chairmen of secondary committees of referral to allow their committees to be discharged of consideration of a bill. They do so by insisting that their jurisdictions not be considered altered by the move and that their rights be protected to offer floor amendments and to participate in House-Senate conference committees. Letters are exchanged and published in the Congressional Record spelling out these understandings and agreements.

The ACES bill went to the House Rules Committee on Thursday, June 25. Of the 224 amendments filed with the committee, only one was cleared for floor consideration — an amendment in the nature of a substitute by Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.). The Rules Committee turned down the Republican substitute offered by Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) on grounds that it was not compliant with the pay-as-you-go rules (and reportedly had a shot at being adopted).

Moreover, the special rule, reported at 3:47 a.m. Friday, ditched the entire Energy Committee bill as reported in favor of a new bill introduced by Waxman on June 22 (without benefit of a summary explanation) and self-executed its adoption along with a further 309-page amendment by Waxman. (A self-executing rule avoids a separate debate and vote on amendments.)

Despite the fact that few Members had a clue as to what was in the new bill as modified by Waxman’s amendment, the rule was called up just six hours after it had been reported. The rule squeaked by, 217-205, and the bill subsequently passed later that day by an even slimmer margin, 219-212.

House passage of the bill was an impressive display of a well-oiled and energy-efficient political machine that maximized majority strengths while avoiding minority resistance by process of exclusion. To get back to that first law of thermodynamics, the internal and external heat applied to the system generated enough additional energy to more than offset any energy lost to the work of political bargaining and infighting. An energy bill was slowly being converted into energy law.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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