House Republicans Respond to Climate Legislation

DEMOCRATS SCORED A MAJOR VICTORY in June as the House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the first piece of legislation aimed at curbing planet-warming greenhouse-gas emissions. It was a narrow victory, eked out against overwhelming opposition from Republicans.

The Republican caucus, save the eight who broke ranks on the bill, seem to be staking their political fortunes on the failure of the cap-and-trade plan. They’re hoping that by calling it “cap-and-tax” and reviving the rhetoric of the BTU fight of the 1990s, they’ll be able to curry enough unrest among the American public to ensure that the bill goes down in flames in the Senate—and with it, the Democratic majority.

“A lot of Democrat members got burnt on that vote,” said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, referring to 1993, when House Democrats passed a budget bill that included a BTU tax, without any Republican support. The Senate rejected the tax, and in the 1994 elections Republicans used the measure to bludgeon Democrats who had voted for it. That election brought about the first GOP House majority in 40 years. Boehner and other Republican leaders firmly believe that the climate change measure will be the defining vote of this year, and will bring them similar success in 2010. Shortly after the vote, Boehner’s office was blasting out e-mails, using the vote to solicit donations. “Let’s turn up the heat this summer on Democrats who supported the national energy tax,” read Boehner’s fundraising copy.

And they might be able to. That is, if they could just get their story together. The party’s inability to put up a united front against a climate and energy bill has been at times pitiful, and other times just hilarious. The GOP can’t even agree on whether or not the planet is warming, let alone articulate a clear argument that the Democratic Party’s policy to address climate change is misguided.

Perhaps the best example of mixed messages from the GOP occurred in the 2008 campaign. John McCain introduced the first climate change legislation back in 2003, putting him way out ahead of the rest of his party and most Democrats. He has always been firm in recognizing that climate change is real, human-caused, and a problem that needs to be dealt with legislatively. While his selection of Sarah Palin as his ticket mate was shocking in so many ways, her views on climate offered the starkest example of an area where the top of the Republican ticket wasn’t even reading from the same book.

“A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location,” Palin said shortly before her selection as McCain’s running mate. “I’m not one though who would attribute it to being man-made.” Her take on the issue just got more confusing from there, as the campaign attempted to smooth over the difference. “I believe that man’s activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming, climate change,” she said a few weeks later. “Regardless, though, of the reason for climate change … John McCain and I agree that we gotta do something about it.”

Well, what exactly can humans do about it if they’re not causing the problem in the first place? Claiming the GOP has the best solution to a problem that it isn’t sure is even happening, or is caused by human activity, is quite a challenge. Palin and McCain couldn’t figure it out, and neither can their Congressional colleagues.

Over in the House, Mike Pence (R-IN), a climate change skeptic, is heading up the caucus’s energy and environment work. In press conferences promoting his party’s alternative to the House bill, Pence has struggled to gloss over his colleagues’ differences on the subject.

“While some may like to bog this debate down in the science over the man-made origins of global warming, we prefer rather to focus on ‘let’s all move toward a horizon of cleaner air,’ and we believe we can do that without costing American jobs and putting an extraordinary energy tax on the American people,” said Pence.

But it’s hard to get past the wildly divergent arguments his party has put forward against climate action. The first, and wing-nuttiest, is that climate change is not happening because God would not let it happen. This view is perhaps best demonstrated by Illinois Rep. John Shimkus, who in an April hearing of the Energy and Commerce Committee whipped out the Bible and quoted from Genesis. “Never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done,” read Shimkus. “I believe that’s the infallible word of God and that’s the way it’s going to be for his creation…. The earth will end only when God declares its time is over.”

Well then, the science is settled! Which leads to the next-best argument against climate legislation—that the science is not, in fact, settled. In this example, Republican leaders will dredge up whatever individuals who remotely qualify as “scientists” to refute findings that global warming is happening. This is often cast as “Temperatures have declined for the past 11 years” (they haven’t), or “Scientists predicted global cooling in the ’70s” (they didn’t).

Republican denialists, Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe chief among them, point to a long list of skeptical scientists. The only problem is, when you actually look at the list of “scientists,” most of them aren’t even climatologists, but rather geographers, physicists, economists and “philosophers of science.” Many of the quotes they cherry-pick don’t express doubt about whether climate change is real and a problem, but rather offer differing opinions about the extent of warming and the consequences of that warming. Inhofe has compiled a list of more than 650 of these “scientists” to date.

Some Republicans have concluded that climate change is a giant lie promoted by scientists and Democrats. Inhofe is widely known for his remark in 2003, that climate change is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” which he and his colleagues have been repeating ever since. Why he believes scientists would want to perpetrate such a myth has never been entirely clear, but it’s a catchy slogan. For this reason, proponents of this line of thinking argue, science and international governmental bodies simply cannot be trusted on the issue of climate. This is the premise of legislation recently introduced by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO), who wants the U.S. to stop participating in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as it is “fraught with waste and is engaged in dubious science.” The IPCC, according to Luetkemeyer, is “nothing more than a group of U.N. bureaucrats that supports man-made claims on global warming that many scientists disagree with.”

The IPCC, in fact, is the panel of climate experts from around the world convened by the U.N. and tasked with compiling regular reports analyzing peer-reviewed, published scientific literature. The group’s most recent report concludes that there is a less than 5 percent chance that climatic changes are natural, and predicts major impacts within the next century—including a 2 to 11.5 degree Fahrenheit temperature rise and a sea level rise of 7 inches to 23 inches.

Yet another argument acknowledges that the climate is changing, but blames it on the sun, volcanoes, water vapor, natural cycles, cow farts, etc. The climate is cyclical and natural, and humankind should just deal with it by … finding a tree. So says Joe Barton of Texas, the ranking minority member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Adapting is a common natural way for people to adapt to their environment…. I believe that the earth’s climate is changing, but I think it’s changing for natural variation reasons,” he said during a hearing in March. “Mankind has been adopting, or adapting to climate as long as man has walked the earth. When it rains, we find shelter. When it’s hot, we get shade. When it’s cold, we find a warm place to stay.”

This is related to another line of argument, that carbon dioxide is great, and we need more of it. Minority Leader Boehner thinks the idea that CO2 is harmful to the environment is hilarious. “The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical,” he told ABC News. “Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide.”

“Carbon dioxide … is a natural by-product of nature. Carbon dioxide is natural. It occurs in Earth. It is a part of the regular life cycle of Earth. In fact, life on planet Earth can’t even exist without carbon dioxide,” argued Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann on the House floor. “So necessary is it to human life, to animal life, to plant life, to the oceans, to the vegetation that’s on the Earth, to the, to the fowl that flies in the air, we need to have carbon dioxide as part of the fundamental life cycle of Earth.”

TALKING TAXES—Yet another Republican line of attack acknowledges that warming is real and caused by human activity, but argues that doing anything about it would bankrupt the economy. This argument comes in the form of using the word “tax” as often as possible, and throwing around numbers from conservative think tanks warning about the number of jobs climate legislation would send overseas, and the increase consumers would see in energy bills.

Eric Cantor (R-VA) warned during floor debate that “moving to eliminate CO2 from the atmosphere is a noble endeavor,” but that this bill is simply too costly. Folks in this category regularly cite the claim from the Heritage Foundation that the bill that passed in the House will cost Americans $11.78 per day—more than eleven times the amount that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Congressional Budget Office predict. For good measure, they throw in a little bit of anti-China fear-mongering, arguing that climate legislation will drive jobs to countries that don’t have carbon restrictions. “In China today they must think Christmas is coming in June,” said Tom Latham (R-IA) on the day the bill passed the House.

This argument has grown increasingly hard to make as more and more businesses have come out in support of cap-and-trade legislation. Some of the biggest energy producers and users in the country have joined forces with environmentalists under the auspices of the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), putting forward the outline that the House bill is based on. Among the businesses on the list: Ford, ConocoPhillips, Shell, DuPont, and Duke Energy. Not exactly your typical tree-huggers. And it’s hard to make a plausible argument that these business titans would support a bill that would seriously damage their bottom line.

I asked Pence about the party’s response to business leaders’ support of cap-and-trade, at one of the events he organized to challenge the House bill. At first he dodged: “I don’t want to confirm that business leaders are asking for a cap or not asking for a cap.” Reminded about USCAP, Pence was dismissive:

“Well, I am aware that some are. I just would say to any American who is prepared to endorse a national energy tax, that there’s a better solution, and that they should keep their powder dry, and take their case to the American people that they don’t need, particularly during this very difficult time in the economic life of our nation, to raise the energy cost on our businesses and on American families.”

A Republican strategy memo obtained by reporters in May outlined a new line of attack, meant to get around the inconvenient truth of business support. This plan would use business support for the bill against Dems, accusing them of embracing “Wall Street traders,” “polluters” and “others in corporate America.” “Cap-and-trade presents a rich political opportunity that gets straight to the Republican bottom line: we are the pro-consumer, pro-small business, pro-free-market party; the Democrats are the pro-Wall Street, pro-corporate welfare party,” reads the memo.

Painting themselves as opponents of big business is, of course, a new strategy for Republicans, one that individual members don’t yet seem to understand. Shimkus struggled to articulate it during House debate: “We’re fighting for the ratepayer. This debate is: ‘Who’s fighting for the ratepayer?’ The corporate titans are my friends! I’m a Caterpillar supporter. I’m an Exelon supporter…. A lot of these companies that negotiated deals, they support me. But I know that they’re in the room to protect shareholder wealth, the wealth of the bondholders, the wealth of the stockholders. And that’s okay.” (Confused? Probably not as much as Shimkus.)

But this isn’t quite as confusing as the final set of GOP arguments against climate legislation, which is that the Democrats’ bill doesn’t do enough to address the problem of climate change—a problem, you may remember, that most Republicans don’t think is happening. During House debate, Republicans like Cantor repeatedly called up a Heritage Foundation study claiming that the bill would only slow global temperature increases by two-tenths of a degree. How Heritage divined that number is unclear, but not quite as unclear as why Republicans would even care, since most of them don’t think warming is happening/human-caused/a problem.

If Republicans are counting on the climate bill to sink the Democrats in 2010, they might want to get everyone working from a basic agreement as to whether or not there actually is a climate problem. It’s hard to build a movement around an issue that members can’t even agree is real, let alone craft a strategy to address it. Perhaps the Republican strategists crafting a comeback plan should take note—and at least circulate a coherent set of talking points. —K.S.

POSTSCRIPT—Jon Eisenberg and six other lawyers representing the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation of Oregon have been writing briefs and motions for three and a half years, as the lawsuit challenging George W. Bush’s Terrorist Surveillance Program has dragged through three federal courts (see Washington Spectator 7-1-09). In their recent filing, they resort to plagiarism. Why not, when the defendant and his lawyer are making the plaintiffs’ argument?

With Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder defending the Bush-Cheney surveillance program, Eisenberg prefaces his motion with a 2007 Barack Obama quote: “Warrantless surveillance of American citizens, in defiance of FISA, is unlawful and unconstitutional.” That’s what Eisenberg will be arguing in a San Francisco courtroom on September 1. He also quotes Holder promising the American people “a reckoning” after the Bush-Cheney years. The motion is replete with Obama Justice Department officials making the same argument the Al Haramain legal team has been making since 2005: Associate Deputy AG Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., writing that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force “neither explicitly nor implicitly supersedes FISA’s warrant requirements”; Solicitor General Elena Kagan arguing that Bush administration legal opinions justifying the warrantless wiretapping program were written by “lawyers who failed to respect the rule of law”; Principal Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal describing the Bush administration’s defense of warrantless wiretapping as “ludicrous,” “incoherent,” and “implausible.” The Al Haramain plaintiffs’ argument extends far beyond the legality of warrantless surveillance. They want a federal judge to rule that the president cannot ignore a law enacted by the Congress—checking the broad expansion of executive authority advanced by Bush and Cheney. —L.D.