Why Is the Left Ignoring the Bipartisan Carbon Tax Bill?

Why Is the Left Ignoring the Bipartisan Carbon Tax Bill?
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Why Is the Left Ignoring the Bipartisan Carbon Tax Bill?
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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Last Tuesday, a small bipartisan group of three Democratic and three Republican members of the U.S. House introduced legislation, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, to stave off a global warming crisis by enacting a tax on carbon pollution. That doesn’t happen every day. In fact, there hasn’t been a bipartisan climate bill in this decade.

Three days later, a group of 10 current and incoming House Democrats, led by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, held a rally in support of climate legislation. But they did not mention the bipartisan bill, let alone celebrate it. Instead, they advocated for a “Green New Deal,” a proposal for such a “massive” government investment into renewable energy that it would zero out the production of fossil fuels in 10 years.

This political divergence is deeply troubling for the future of the planet.

Of course, no climate bill is going to clear both the House and Senate in the next Congress; Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would never put one on the Senate floor. But the brewing House battle will have enormous repercussions beyond the next Congress. No law establishing a program to slash greenhouse gas emissions will ever pass without a coalition consisting of a unified Democratic Party and a faction of Republicans. If Democrats cleave into two or more camps today, there’s no guarantee they will unify tomorrow.

Why are proponents of a “Green New Deal” giving the bipartisan carbon tax bill the silent treatment? It wasn’t that long ago that supporting a carbon tax was proof of one’s leftist bona fides; in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders routinely used his carbon tax proposal to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton and contend he was the only candidate who tackled the climate crisis “aggressively.”

Something else happened in 2016: a Washington state ballot initiative for a “revenue-neutral” carbon tax. The proposal submitted for voter approval would have enacted the first carbon tax in the United States, while also cutting the sales tax and a manufacturing tax. Other revenue would be sent to low-income families in the form of a tax rebate.

But many progressive activists in the state didn’t want a revenue-neutral carbon tax. They wanted a revenue-raising carbon tax. They argued a revenue-neutral approach was flawed on both policy and political grounds. More revenue was needed to rapidly invest in renewable energy, green jobs and aid for impoverished communities. And those benefits would generate more political support, especially from the progressive base, than a quixotic attempt to impress conservatives with revenue neutrality.

Several major state progressive organizations, as well as the state Democratic Party, opposed the measure. No conservative support of note materialized either. It lost by 18 percentage points.

This year, progressive activists in Washington state got a chance to do it their way: a ballot initiative that raised revenue through a carbon emissions “fee” and spent it on their preferred priorities. Informally, it was known as the “Green New Deal.” It excited the left, but also unleashed backlash from the right — far more money was spent by Big Oil opposing the measure than was spent on the one two years prior. It lost by 13 points.

The philosophical divide between the hard left and center-left didn’t help the climate in Washington state. And it won’t help in Washington, D.C., either. Yet the same battle lines are currently being drawn.

What Ocasio-Cortez and 17 other allies are currently advocating for is not a specific Green New Deal bill, but a new committee with the task of drafting such a bill. This would not be a committee where widely differing proposals get debated; the proposed resolution dictates the outcome, mandating the committee produce legislation that achieves “100% of national power generation from renewable sources” in a period “no longer than 10 years” through “massive investment.”

I have no substantive problem with any of those provisions, if they could get the votes. But if such a high price-tag vision couldn’t garner a majority in decidedly blue Washington state in a decidedly blue election year, it’s prospects in the United States Congress, not just today but in the foreseeable future, look bleak. Most Democrats who flipped red districts this year ran as bipartisan problem-solvers, not big spenders. Even if Democrats expand their ranks in 2020, those moderates will still be in Congress. Progressives will have to compromise with them, and probably some Republicans, to get anything done.

In turn, it makes no sense to set up a committee that cuts off debate around other possible approaches that may be more politically feasible, such as the bipartisan Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. It may only have three Republican sponsors today, but that’s three more than the Green New Deal has. Like the first Washington state ballot initiative, the bill proposes a revenue-neutral carbon tax, but not with any offsetting corporate tax cuts. Instead, all of the carbon tax revenue is returned to the American people in the form of rebates.

Is that the most ideal policy prescription? That’s worth debating, but not to the point of inaction. As climate activists keep telling us, all too accurately, the climate is already in crisis and time may be running out for us to be able to stop catastrophic damage. But squabbling over perfection while the clock ticks is no better for the planet than engaging in climate science denial. It is long past time to do something, and something can only happen with negotiation and compromise.

Furthermore, it doesn’t make much sense for progressives to try to prevent coal-friendly West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin from becoming the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as some are trying to do. “The vast majority of Americans believe that we should not be taking money from the industries that we are legislating and really presiding over,” said Ocasio-Cortez in expressing her concern about Manchin’s expected ascension. The vast majority of West Virginia voters, at least, clearly did not believe that.

Manchin may be only one vote, but opposition from him would likely kill any climate bill, whereas winning him over may be necessary to bring along however many Senate Republicans will eventually be needed to get a 60-vote supermajority. Four years ago, despite fervent opposition to Barack Obama’s preferred bill to cap carbon emissions, Manchin acknowledged climate change is a real problem and expressed interest in a climate compromise. Those on the left who correctly prioritize the climate crisis as one of our most pressing issues should be spending the time with Manchin now and figure out what set of policies would be acceptable, so Democrats can move quickly once they gain more seats in Congress. Getting on his bad side, I do not recommend.

Whether House Democrats set up a special climate change committee, or allow existing committees to craft a climate bill, isn’t terribly important. What is important is creating a committee process that considers different approaches, so we can assess which proposal has the best chance to garner the necessary support, both inside Congress and across America. A committee that pre-determines the outcome, as Ocasio-Cortez envisions, can’t do that. That will only set Democrats, and the planet, up for failure.

Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at contact@liberaloasis.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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