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Democrats appear stymied on a top priority: climate legislation

Outside of passing Paris accord bill, new House majority has little to show

Democrats, led by Sen. Edward J. Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, center, introduce the Green New Deal in February. The resolution still hasn’t received a committee vote and hasn’t resulted in legislation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrats, led by Sen. Edward J. Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, center, introduce the Green New Deal in February. The resolution still hasn’t received a committee vote and hasn’t resulted in legislation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s been more than six months since Democrats assumed control of the House promising to take bold action on climate change. And what do they have to show for it?

Just one major bill directly addressing the issue has passed on the floor, a measure that would force the U.S. to honor its commitments in the Paris climate accord. A comprehensive climate change package has yet to emerge, and a bill reintroduced by the chairman of the main committee of jurisdiction over Clean Air Act issues hasn’t had a committee vote.

House Democrats have conducted dozens of hearings on climate change across several committees, including those that don’t traditionally involve themselves in environmental policy, such as Intelligence and Ways and Means. And they added provisions to address climate change in the 2019 spending bills they passed this year.

But even their most visible measure, the Green New Deal resolution sponsored by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, hasn’t received a committee vote and hasn’t resulted in legislation.

“In the euphoria of a successful election, everything looks possible,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, adding that legislation, for now, has taken a back seat to messaging.

“It turns out that a lot of what they were talking about was merely aspirational,” he said.

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Messaging is important, said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., but legislating requires passing measures that won’t die in the Republican-controlled Senate and will be signed by President Donald Trump, who rejects climate science.

Pallone said Democrats hope to move much of their climate policy action through an infrastructure bill dubbed the Lift America Act, for which they were hoping to get bipartisan support both in the House and the Senate.

“That’s the best vehicle to get some of these initiatives to actually be signed into law,” the New Jersey Democrat said.

The bill calls not just for investments in transportation systems but also for billions of dollars for clean energy infrastructure and making the grid more resilient to severe weather caused by climate change. The bill also would direct funding into renewable energy projects as a means to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“If all you’re going to do is pass bills in the House, that doesn’t actually accomplish the goal, so we’re still hoping we can have bipartisan support on some of these initiatives,” Pallone said.

The “biggest holdup” has been the inability to jump-start negotiations after Trump walked away from the infrastructure negotiating table in May, Pallone added.

Trump has asserted he won’t work with Democrats on infrastructure legislation unless they stop investigating his administration for possible campaign violations during his 2016 election and obstruction of justice afterward.

Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who occasionally votes with Democrats on measures to address climate change, said the meager momentum on such legislation is a symptom of the political split in Washington.

“Let’s face it, we have divided government,” Upton said. “You want to get something done, it needs to be bipartisan, and so far, we’ve not seen a lot of that.”

Even as the Democrats say Trump and Senate Republicans are holding up their climate agenda, they have still passed more than 100 other non-climate pieces of legislation, most of which will not be voted on in the Senate.

“Ask the speaker,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio said when asked about the slow pace of climate legislation.

“I’m impatient with a lot of bills and important things that are being held up around here,” the Oregon Democrat said. “Why haven’t we done a whole bunch of things? Why haven’t we done more meaningful things like climate change? I can’t answer that. I’m not in charge.”

DeFazio said he is doing his part within his panel, where he said every subcommittee is charged with finding ways to reduce fossil fuel pollution.

“And we’re working our way through it, and we’ll do it committee by committee,” he said. “We’re going to do it with wastewater and sewer plants, capturing methane; we’re going to do it in the surface transportation bill with more transit options, electrification of the National Highway System and move away from fossil fuels.”

Small steps

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries said the party has designated Florida Rep. Kathy Castor to analyze and make recommendations on climate legislation.

Castor chairs the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi formed at the demand of youth activists and the party’s newly elected progressive members.

Jeffries said the select committee has until March 31, 2020, to issue recommendations, and then the party can start moving climate legislation.

“They’re in the midst of completing their work and at some point, no later than that date, but possibly sooner, we expect that we will receive the information from them and decide how we want to move forward,” the New York Democrat said.

During the first two years of Trump’s presidency, when Republicans controlled all three branches of government, Democrats continually chided them for their dismissal of climate science and reversal of regulations put in place under the Obama administration to cut heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.

But the Paris climate accord bill, which would force the U.S. to remain in the agreement and pursue the pact’s greenhouse gas emission goals, is the only major climate change measure House Democrats have managed to pass since they took over the majority. Many other bills have been introduced, but there’s little indication they will make it to the House floor any time soon.

The Paris accord bill stands little chance of moving in the Senate where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a supporter of Trump’s retreat on climate action, will not bring it up for a vote.

“When you know that something is bound to be vetoed, you may go about it, but on the other hand, it takes some of the motivation out of it,” Rutgers’ Baker said.

Even the Green New Deal, which became a subject of contention and much talk among both Democrats and Republicans, has not gained momentum and a resolution outlining its goals languishes.

“It’s a tough journey from vision to specificity,” said Adele Morris, a senior fellow and policy director for Climate and Energy Economics at the Brookings Institution. “A lot of those people who wrote the Green New Deal resolution didn’t have experience writing actionable legislation.”

Morris said part of the reason for the slow progress on climate legislation is because it took House Democrats time to get organized, including setting up their committees and assignments. But that’s not necessarily a sign of incompetence in the party, which is tackling responsibilities that have been “neglected” in the previous Congress, she added.

“They just have a big agenda on their plate, and it’s taking a while,” Morris said. “Governing is difficult.”

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