May 13, 2010

On the American Power Act

First, let me say, it's got a nice title: It's pithy, has a strong nationalistic tone, but with a wink and a nod to greens that it's really about saving the planet -- much like the bill itself. If the Senate can get this bill done this year, then the APA -- along with the ACA (Affordable Care Act) -- will be two of the pillars of President Obama's legacy.

But of course, that's a big if. There's about 50 different ways that progress on the bill could go awry (and has gone awry already), and only about one way it can go right: If you can get both the staunchly anti-offshore drilling Senators like Bill Nelson and the staunchly pro-drilling Senators like Mary Landrieu on the same page; and you can convince enough coal-state and farm-state Democrats not to bail; and you can convince liberals, not only in the Senate, but in the House, that this is a bill worth passing; and you can bring back Lindsey Graham and a few other Republicans to the table; then maybe you can get it out of the Senate. Then you have to merge that bill with the House bill, pass that in both chambers again, and get the President's signature -- all before the midterm elections in which Democrats are expected to get obliterated. If the Senate didn't have FinReg, immigration, and confirming Elena Kagan to the bench on its plate, getting this done wouldn't be so formidable; but it does, so it is.

So for liberals and environmentalists, is the APA worth supporting? The truth is, it's not all that different from the House bill, which itself was compromised, but in different ways; and that bill had enviros supporting it, albeit tepidly. Certainly, this bill is far from what is needed, especially as an example for the rest of the world -- we're never going to persuade China or India to sign on to a successor to Kyoto if we don't, at a minimum, start reducing our own emissions. But as with the ACA, waiting for a perfect bill is a fool's errand; and given the stakes involved, we can't afford to be foolish. As Brad Plumer notes, the Clean Air Act was an extremely weak piece of legislation when first enacted, but grew in power and scope over time. The same, I think, will be true of the APA.

In the end, it might not matter: As Ezra Klein points out, neither Senate Democrats nor the White House have offered much of a coordinated strategy in terms of moving the bill forward, to say nothing of the aforementioned busy legislative schedule. Failure is definitely an option. That, however, may not be such a disaster, at least in terms of federal action on climate change. The EPA, as we know, is moving full steam ahead on regulating greenhouse gases through the Clean Air Act, despite a mighty appetite in Congress to stop them. So even if the legislative environment for a climate bill becomes frostier (no pun intended) after November, I could foresee the Obama administration doubling down on the EPA, fighting tooth and nail to keep Congress from defunding its climate change activities. Meanwhile, the economy improves, Obama beats Sarah Palin to be reelected, and brings in a slew of new Democrats on his coattails. By 2013, either the business community will be so burdened by EPA regulation of GHGs that they beg Congress to pass a cap & trade bill like the APA that preempts the EPA using the Clean Air Act for such purposes; or it turns out all their fears were for naught, and Congress simply codifies what the EPA is already doing; that way, in 2017, the incoming Romney administration can't simply toss all their hard work out the window. Internationally, Obama makes the case that the US is, in fact, reducing its GHG emissions, and is able to translate the Copenhagen Accord into a full-fledged climate treaty -- which of course, the Senate will never ratify, but at least the process is still alive. If you're an eternal optimist (I'm not), I think you could take a lot of comfort from this scenario.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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