Senator Cardin: Carbon tax might pass in secret vote

Source: Josh Kurtz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 20, 2017

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is not one of the Senate’s grandstanders. He’s a policy wonk and a career public servant who has been honing his legislative skills for 51 years — 20 of them in the Maryland House of Delegates, including a stint as speaker; 20 years in the House; and the past 11 in the Senate.

Yet mild-mannered as Cardin usually is, he always seems to find himself in the thick of major policy debates.

As ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he just led a delegation of five Democratic senators to the U.N. climate conference in Bonn, Germany (E&E News PM, Nov. 14).

He’s also digging into the Republican tax reform plan, as a member of the Finance Committee, and is likely to emerge as one of the proposal’s leading opponents. Finance will also be the place where any Democratic efforts to advance a carbon tax would be launched.

And as a senior member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Cardin is deeply involved with the panel’s broad environmental portfolio, where he takes the lead on issues related to the Chesapeake Bay and is a fierce critic of U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

E&E News sat down with Cardin this week to discuss a variety of issues, including his take on President Trump, the way forward for an agenda on climate action and the 2018 elections. A lightly edited transcript follows:

So you’re back from your whirlwind trip.

It worked a lot better than I thought. We were there the perfect week — the week for setting the stage, before the politicos got there, before you had the foreign ministers, where decisions are being made. The agenda’s modest at [the Conference of the Parties], and the United States is not going to be a major player in the decisionmaking.

We came down as such a strong voice for the United States, to counter completely the president’s actions, which has caused a lot of damage, which continue to cause damage. But I think the clear message was that there continues to be a U.S. commitment [to the Paris accord]. I think that was incredible. We were able to show chapter and verse, not only by our presentations, which were pretty strong, but also by state people that were there, the mayors that were there, the business people that were there, that it was a unified message.

We were also able to point out the obvious — that the president couldn’t get us out [of the agreement] until November of 2020 anyway, so we’ll have a new administration that could get us right back in in November 2020. So I think [other countries] feel a lot better. That’s the good news.

The bad news is there are at least two areas where President Trump is causing a great deal of heartburn. One is he is ceding space to the developing world on clean energy, particularly to China, and China’s influence is growing. And that’s not good for the United States, and that’s not good for Europe, and that’s not good for a lot of places.

The other thing is, with a hostile administration and Congress, on appropriations, our financial commitments [to international climate programs] will not be as clear as our ability to meet emissions targets. So it’s going to be harder on finance, but not impossible, to make progress.

We had a really good meeting with the U.N. We had a really good meeting with the E.U. And we actually had a good meeting, our team, with the State Department.

So you actually saw the State Department there? Those were just career folks, right?

They were all career folks. [Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs] Tom Shannon wasn’t there.

Let me back up and ask what’s going to sound like a goofy question, but do you and your colleagues travel there together?

Yes, on one plane. First of all, you cannot coordinate senators. But you would have thought we were coordinated. Each of the senators have connections in the environmental community and use those connections to extend our presence in a more effective way. But then collectively there were several major opportunities and several pledge opportunities that had the attention of the international community. We had major corporations that were present. So there was never a moment that was scripted. But Sen. [Ed] Markey [D-Mass.] and myself didn’t coordinate what we were going to say, and yet we complemented each other to a T, the whole time we were there. And so it was for the whole COP.

Sen. [Sheldon] Whitehouse [D-R.I.] is really concerned about oceans, so he did his thing. Sen. [Brian] Schatz [D-Hawaii] has great credibility with the Pacific Islands nations, whose very existence is threatened by climate change. Sen. [Jeff] Merkley [D-Ore.] is extremely engaged on financing issues. So we all complemented each other, but we never really coordinated our message. I’ve done a lot of these in the past, and this was one of the most successful as far as our Senate delegation goes.

I think Bonn helped us, because we had miserable weather, and there’s not a lot of distractions in Bonn.

Right, it’s not like going to Paris or Cancun. So you were at that pro-climate-action rally outside the Capitol on Tuesday, and there were events just like it all across the country (Climatewire, Nov. 15). So what’s next to advance the ball on climate policy?

It’s a great question. We have people inside the administration who are rooting for us. Some are political appointments. Some are more career appointments. So we go over some strategies with them. As I said in Bonn, call it resiliency, call it adaptation, it might go get you some money. So there are different ways, you can move some buckets around, we may be able to do things. [The U.S. Agency for International Development] gets some monies for resiliency, adaptation, that is really climate money.

Since you’re on Finance and you’re doing tax reform, is there any chance of even symbolically introducing a carbon tax amendment during the upcoming debate?

You know, if the carbon tax had a secret vote, it might pass. There’s support for the carbon tax. You’ve got two problems: One, you have Republicans who aren’t going to support any tax. The second thing is, you run into the problem of, is it really going to be revenue-neutral or are you going to use the money for different purposes? Do you use it for transportation? Some people want to use it for business tax relief. Do you use it for energy? There’s different needs out there. Cap and trade used it for energy.

I hope we get back to the carbon tax sooner rather than later, but I don’t know if we want to do something symbolically if it doesn’t get a credible vote. But we mentioned carbon taxes briefly in Bonn. Sen. Whitehouse has filed a bill. I speak about it frequently. I personally believe it’s an alternative.

I don’t think tax reform is going to succeed. They may pass something. But I don’t think it’s going to succeed. Here’s one advertised objective for federal tax reform as the Republicans see it: to make our business taxes more competitive. Are our business taxes not competitive? Perhaps they’re not, they have a good point. The problem is that it relies solely on income tax revenues rather than consumption taxes or carbon taxes. So there may be some way to use this to get more competitive taxation.

Is there a consensus within your caucus on the carbon tax question or even how to address the climate issue going forward?

I guess we’ll never know. You’re asking a really great question. What happens two years from now when we have the majority in the House and Senate? And then what happens three years from now when we have a new president, plus the House and Senate?

So no preliminary discussions at this point?

I think that it would be a challenge. But I really do think a carbon tax can pass and be enacted into law. At this point, it would have to be the right product. You really do need a president who has thought about some sensible policy, and this president hasn’t thought about sensible policy.

So with tax reform happening in your committee, what are your biggest fears; what are your expectations? Is it just going to be a nothing burger?

It may be a big burger. I think they have a chance to succeed. But it won’t work in the long term. They may not even get the benefits of it politically. They will succeed in reducing the business taxes, which is their sole objective. But the middle-income tax relief is solely cosmetic.

Will the voters buy that, do you think?

They may. You give somebody $50, they’re happy. But remember, the people you help, they remember you for about 10 minutes. The people you hurt, they never forget your name. There are going to be a lot of people upset about the tax bill.

What’s your impression of President Trump so far?

Look, this guy is not qualified to be president of the United States. We have such a low bar right now. I spent more time cleaning up things in Bonn and explaining things, talking to the German No. 3 in their State Department, and we had a very interesting discussion about the president of the United States.

I talked to the E.U. — we’re dealing with Iran right now. That’s a self-imposed problem. North Korea is much more challenging because of what he’s done. I deal with foreign policy all the time. As I explain to staff, he’s not a chess player, he’s not always looking at the next move. But he’s not a good checker player, either.

He doesn’t have the temperament. He doesn’t have an understanding of how important his words are, and he doesn’t listen to advice and is not strategic.

His environmental agenda is terrible. It’s demonstrated unfortunately in a lot of different things, [trying to repeal] the Waters of the U.S. rule, his lack of commitment to clean air, his selection for administrator of the EPA, it’s just one thing after the next. He’s willing to compromise public health, he’s willing to compromise clean air and water for special interests, and it’s typical of his policies. He puts it under the rubric of regulatory reform, but frankly, I think the public wants clean air and clean water.

So how do you make environment a front-burner issue?

Tell me what country is outside the mainstream of the entire world when it comes to our global responsibility to recognize the importance of the environment. That’s the United States of America. Trump is so far outside of the norm he can make an issue that would otherwise not be a front-burner issue. The Chesapeake Bay, that is a front-burner issue for Maryland. We can make environment a front-burner issue in Maryland. The question is, can we make it a front-burner issue in the states where we’re trying to pick up seats? That’s going to be a little more challenging, but I think the answer is yes. What we found in Maryland is, this has never been a partisan issue. By making it a partisan issue, the Republicans are doing it at their own risk.

Quite frankly, when you see hurricanes, wildfires and all those other things occur, I understand you can’t draw a direct line, but there are so many things going on. There comes a point where the public says, enough is enough. And let’s get with this. Carbon emissions have a real consequence.

What lessons do you think Democrats should take after last week’s election?

There’s energy out there. And it can be translated into people voting who haven’t voted before and in numbers that haven’t been there before.

Do you feel confident about taking back the majority in both chambers of Congress?

Oh, no, I don’t mean to give you that. I joked three weeks ago that we have a better chance of taking back the Senate than Trump had of being elected president, so I think we clearly are in the hunt to take back the majority of the Senate, but I would not want to make a prediction a year out. We have 25 seats up, and they only have nine up.

The legendary former Democratic Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski retired at the end of last year after serving five terms. Has your life changed much now that you’re the senior senator?

It has changed. It has caused me to try to set priorities on the appropriations process, to help set priorities on the bay, the whole state. You go to the federal facilities, you champion their cause. Military installations, to recognize that there will be another [Base Realignment and Closure] round, so prepare for that. In addition, I’ve had several conversations with the administration on judicial issues that require our understanding, so it takes some finesse there.

It’s a great state. The fact that I go home every night to Baltimore, it really does give you a break that you don’t have in any other state. And Mondays and Fridays I can be all over Maryland. Weekends I can be in Maryland and I can spend time with my family because I’ve been in Maryland every night. I really don’t mind the commute. The commute’s about three hours a day. I have staff to drive so I can do work.

Taking on Foreign Relations has taken a lot of time. And the president has made it take even more time.

But it comes with the territory.

It does.