Senate’s quiet workhorse was 2 for 2 on big energy bills

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, September 10, 2018

Former Sen. Jeff Bingaman is watching the days of big energy bills fade in his rearview mirror.

The New Mexico Democrat and former chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee would know. He shepherded the passage of two big energy packages in 2005 and 2007.

Now retired and living in Santa Fe, Bingaman said brawls over climate change will likely derail chances for energy action anytime soon, even if Democrats retake the House in November.

“It’s unlikely that a Democratically controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate could pass something that this president would sign,” he said. “As far as any kind of major energy legislation, I think Democrats would insist it reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Bingaman, 74, was widely regarded as a rock-solid legislator during his 30-year stint in the Senate.

From his upset election in 1983 until his retirement in 2013, Bingaman’s bipartisan work and low-key demeanor earned him nicknames like “quiet diplomat” and “workhorse.” He was the top Democrat on Energy and Natural Resources when the first energy package passed in 2005 and chairman when the second passed two years later.

The son of a college chemistry professor and an elementary school teacher, Bingaman was elected to the Senate in 1982 after a four-year stint as New Mexico’s attorney general, knocking off incumbent Republican Sen. Harrison Schmitt, a former astronaut. After retiring, he returned to his alma mater, Stanford Law School, to complete a one-year fellowship at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance.

These days, Bingaman is busy planning trips abroad with his wife, Anne, and spending time with his 4-year-old granddaughter, Laura.

He’s been out of the spotlight for some time. The last time he grabbed attention was in 2012, when he appeared on comedian Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report.”

“Do you have the power as a senator to just walk up to anyone in Congress and give them a wedgie?” Colbert asked.

Bingman’s reply: “Uh, yeah, I guess I do.”

“That was the high point of my television career,” he said in an interview. “I’m not out looking to get in the news. I never did too much of that.”

Bingaman ventured back into spotlight recently at the request of E&E News.

What are you up to these days?

I’m on three different nonprofit boards that meet occasionally, and that takes time. We’re getting ready to take a trip to Scotland and Ireland in September. We’re out in the country a little ways. We were able to keep the house during the 30 years that we were in Washington, so we now are living there again and enjoying it very much.

Do you miss Congress?

I don’t miss Capitol Hill, and I wouldn’t run for office again.

You’ve been called the “quiet diplomat,” a “workhorse and not a show horse,” one of the “adults” in Congress.

Oh, I think there are quite a few adults in Congress, so I don’t claim any exclusive label like that. I tried to focus on trying to get some things done while I was there in the Senate, and felt good about what we’ve been able to do given all the circumstances by the end of time I was there.

Any regrets from your time on the Hill?

I would like to have seen us pass legislation to implement the recommendations of the blue-ribbon panel that Energy Secretary Steven Chu set up to advise on what to do about nuclear waste. Obviously I would like to have seen us do something on the issue of climate change, and we tried to do that, but obviously the votes weren’t there to get it done during the time I was in the Senate.

Are the days of big energy and climate bills over?

I still have hopes that we could develop a consensus nationally to go ahead with some type of carbon tax or some type of regime to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But that’s proven very difficult to do, and until we get more support on the Republican side, I don’t see that happening.

How did you see climate awareness change on the Hill?

When I got there in ’83, nobody was talking about climate change. When you talked about energy legislation, it was all about supply and price. Once climate change became a major point of discussion, the parties diverged and Democrats have wanted to continue considering supply and price but also focus on climate problems.

Republicans have generally opposed that, but early on they did not. [The late Arizona Sen.] John McCain was obviously ahead of his time with the McCain-Lieberman legislation. There were other Republicans who favored dealing with greenhouse gas emissions, but they’re far and few between now.

Are Democrats doing enough to promote climate action?

Until the issue of climate change becomes a campaign issue, we’re not going to have the public concern about it that’s required to change the minds of people who get elected to Congress. I would like to see more discussion of it, and I’d like to see more people vote on the basis of which candidate takes a responsible position on that issue.

Looking out West, what’s the best way to deal with these raging wildfires? Should the federal government have more flexibility to thin forests, for instance?

I think they clearly need the ability to do forest thinning, and they have that in most areas. I think they also need the resources to do that. One of the problems we had when I was there in the Senate, and I think we still have today, is that a lot of the resources for thinning forests and preventing wildfires, a lot of that money gets used up in fighting fires. And so you always have to address the immediate problem, which is fighting the fires, at the expense of the longer-term, chronic problem of needing to better manage the forests.

What do you think of Trump administration officials downplaying the role of climate change in those fires?

I think it’s very detrimental because, clearly to my mind, the increase in the frequency and severity of forest fires in the West is directly tied to warmer temperatures, more drought that we’re seeing that results from climate change. I think recognizing what’s happening with the climate is an essential part of trying to effectively manage the national forests.

What would it take to prompt national action on climate?

Congress is not very good at leading on major national issues. I think the way our government is structured, you’ve got to have a president who’s willing to point the direction we ought to be moving in, and we don’t have that today on energy and climate. And we’re going to have to have some courageous folks in the Republican Party rally and begin to embrace a reasonable policy on the subject.

Do have any interest in getting back to Capitol Hill?

Well, I watch what’s going on from a distance, and it all looks pretty familiar to me. I miss some of the people that I worked with, both members of Congress but also staff, and that’s the part of it that I do miss.

But the frustrations that are built into the system with the inability to make progress on constructive legislation and things like that, those frustrations I don’t miss.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.