He got burned on one climate bill, but he’s trying again

Source: Josh Kurtz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 31, 2018

When the House narrowly passed cap-and-trade legislation in 2009, then-Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, responsible for protecting the Democrats’ majority.

A year later, Democrats suffered devastating defeats at the polls, losing 63 House seats. That climate bill, which stalled in the Senate, was partly to blame.

Now, Van Hollen is a senator and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He is also a lead sponsor of a new “cap-and-dividend” bill to confront climate change.

But Van Hollen says there’s no political risk for Democrats in promoting his legislation.

“I’m not concerned that this will have a negative impact on members of the Democratic caucus, because I think the American public is way out ahead of Washington in recognizing climate change as a threat … and also recognizing the opportunities of promoting clean energy technologies,” Van Hollen said yesterday during a telephone news conference on the “Healthy Climate and Family Security Act.”

Supporters acknowledge the legislation has zero chance of passing this year in the Republican-led Congress.

The bill would set CO2 emissions caps and auction carbon credits to the first sellers of coal, oil and natural gas into the U.S. market. The dividends would be returned to U.S. taxpayers quarterly (Climatewire, Jan. 29). Backers of the legislation have launched a website promoting its approach.

Van Hollen and the lead sponsor in the House, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), co-chairman of the Safe Climate Caucus, said that voter support for addressing climate change is growing at the same time that Democrats are expected to make significant political gains this November, especially in the House.

“The point here is to continue to build momentum right now,” Van Hollen said. “Because if we do nothing right now and the political opportunity presents itself, we will not be prepared.”

Beyer said that Democrats ought to be selling the legislation aggressively.

“Especially in the swing districts of America, this is not a heavy lift,” he said.

But Beyer conceded that while 22 House Democrats have joined the legislation as co-sponsors, he has not been able to persuade any Republicans to sign on — not even those in the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, which currently has 34 GOP members.

“They’ve come a long way,” he said, “but not that far.”

Leaders of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which helped assemble the Climate Solutions Caucus — nicknamed the “Noah’s Ark Caucus” because it requires an equal number of Republicans and Democrats — hold out hope that the caucus will introduce some carbon legislation in this Congress. There are already Democratic-sponsored carbon tax bills in the House and Senate, and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) is promoting legislation to impose a “pollution tax” and use the proceeds to pay for infrastructure improvements (Climatewire, Nov. 29, 2017).

Under the Van Hollen-Beyer legislation, crude oil refineries, petroleum importers, coal mines, coal importers and natural gas suppliers or processors would be required to purchase carbon permits equivalent to the amount of CO2 emitted by covered fuels beginning in 2019. The Treasury Department would auction these permits to those entities, and the proceeds would be used for quarterly dividends to taxpayers.

The sponsors said about 80 percent of Americans would see more money in their pockets, and the bill would aim to gradually reduce CO2 emissions to 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. It would aim to hit a 20 percent reduction by 2020 and a 40 percent reduction by 2030.

The measure would also require U.S. EPA to regulate within 10 years all sources of greenhouse gases that are anthropogenically emitted, with the exception of gases attributable to the production of animals for food.

Beyer, who owns a prominent Northern Virginia auto dealership, said the legislation should be acceptable to many business leaders.

“I’m a businessman, so I actually most appreciate solutions that let market forces have their way,” he said. “I love the fact that it doesn’t grow the bureaucracy.”

Voters warming to climate legislation?

Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network Action Center, which organized yesterday’s news conference, noted that the cap-and-trade bill that the House passed in 2009 was 1,600 pages long and difficult for most people — including lawmakers — to digest.

Tidwell called the Van Hollen-Beyer legislation “an incredibly elegant bill” and “the inevitable solution.”

The 2009 cap-and-trade bill generated plenty of controversy. The “American Clean Energy and Security Act” passed the House in 2009 by a 219-212 vote, with eight Republicans supporting it and 44 Democrats opposing it. It died in the Senate without a vote.

As the 2010 election cycle unfolded, the climate bill became a political flashpoint, along with the health care reform legislation that Democrats muscled through both chambers of Congress. Most of the House Democrats who lost were moderates and conservatives — some of whom had voted for cap and trade, and others who had opposed the measure. Running for Senate, then-West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) famously shot a copy of the legislation with a rifle in a campaign ad.

Even though 2010 was a Democratic wipeout, Van Hollen, who had also been DCCC chairman in the 2008 cycle, when the Democrats picked up 21 seats, was praised by party strategists for keeping so many races competitive.

The dynamic is a little different this cycle. Democrats need to pick up 24 Republican-held House seats to win back control of the majority, and most nonpartisan political handicappers believe that is within the realm of possibility.

But Van Hollen’s task is a little more daunting. Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate, but Democrats are only targeting three GOP-held seats at the moment, in Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee.

At the same time, they are defending 10 seats in states that President Trump won in 2016, including those in Republican strongholds like West Virginia, Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri and Montana. Voters in those states may not want to embrace climate action so quickly.

But Van Hollen believes cap and dividend will eventually meet a different fate than the cap-and-trade measure.

“We believe this particular bill will have elements that resonate with huge segments of the electorate,” he said.