Why no progress this year, despite committee success?

Source: Katie Howell • E&E • Posted: Friday, December 2, 2011

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has cleared an impressive 61 bills this year, dozens more than most other panels.

Of those, 15 minor public lands bills and a medical isotope production measure have passed the full Senate unanimously, without a roll call vote. But that is where the committee’s legislative momentum dries up.”The process is disappointing,” said the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).The full chamber has not debated a single measure reported out of the committee, and prospects don’t look likely for energy action as the year winds down and Congress moves ever closer to the 2012 election.”I think among most committees in the Senate, we probably are the most productive in terms of legislation we’ve marked up and reported to the Senate,” the committee’s Democratic staff director Bob Simon said during a recent event in Washington, D.C. “But that’s one step of the legislative process. Obviously, we have to get things not just out of our committee but through the Senate and the House.”

“We have our work cut out for us,” he observed.

Senate energy action has not been the only area to suffer. Congress as a whole this year has enacted only a fraction of the laws that previous sessions of Congress had done at the same point in the legislative process.

Much of the inactivity could be chalked up to the partisan gridlock that has plagued nearly every debate on Capitol Hill, with most bills cleared by the Democrat-controlled Senate likely dead on arrival in the GOP stronghold of the House.

At the same time, overarching debt and budget woes have dominated debate time and will continue to do so.

“The inability of Congress to act on tax and budget reform has seized up the political system,” said Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center. “The debt crisis has sadly unnecessarily polarized the Congress and made passing legislation on issues that historically were bipartisan very difficult.”

Still, in a year that saw soaring energy prices and a nuclear energy crisis in Japan — and that is still haunted by the aftermath of last year’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — many Washington insiders and observers are wondering where the disconnect on energy is.

“I think, frankly, that though we do realize the hurdles, the need for effective energy policies is more than ever,” the committee’s Republican staff director McKie Campbell said last month.

Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Murkowski agree about the lack of interest in energy policy in the full Senate, but they give different reasons for the apathy.

“Obviously I wish we’d been able to bring up on the floor the various energy-related bills we’ve reported out,” said Bingaman, who is retiring from the Senate at the end of next year. “But the Senate schedule has been pretty full.”

Murkowski, on the other hand, said, “I don’t think the majority has prioritized energy.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) this summer promised that action on energy would be a top priority for the chamber this fall. But that promise never came to fruition as other more pressing items crowded the legislative calendar.

The prospect of passage in the House likely weighs into Reid’s decisions about what to place on the legislative calendar.

“It is true that the House has a different agenda, and I’m sure that Senator Reid and others are taking that into consideration,” Bledsoe said.

Joshua Freed, director of the clean energy program at centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, agreed. “If you’re Harry Reid, your options are limited.”

“It really shows how out of touch the House is that legislation that gets passed through a committee run by Senators Lisa Murkowski and Jeff Bingaman — among the most moderate and reasonable members in Congress — don’t have a shot in passing through the House,” Freed added.

Committee dynamics

Much of the success the committee has had can be attributed to the strong working relationship between Bingaman and Murkowski, which follows a long history of bipartisan cooperation on the committee.

“Senate Energy has been a redoubt of bipartisan pragmatism for decades, and for the most part, that committee culture remains,” Bledsoe said.

The duo is famous for finding areas of common ground, and Murkowski said this week that she and Bingaman have “a great working relationship.”

“I’d like for him [Bingaman] to see some legislative successes because his legislative success is to an extent mine because we’ve been working in a bipartisan manner,” she added.

But neither lawmaker is in strong lockstep with their broader caucus. Bingaman, unlike many Democrats, supports more oil and gas development and has been known to vote against proposals from the party leadership. Murkowski differs from many of her Republican colleagues in her push for more renewable energy development. And she ruffled GOP feathers last year when she lost her party’s primary election but still ran in — and won — the general election as a write-in candidate.

“I think that both our bosses — even if their colleagues don’t agree with their particular positions they take — they enjoy some respect for having thought through the issues carefully,” Simon said.

But this year, some partisan gridlock has crept into the famously bipartisan committee.

The two panel leaders have found themselves at odds over some issues, most notably offshore drilling revenue-sharing language that Murkowski and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana wanted to add to an oil spill-response measure that Bingaman authored. Bingaman does not support revenue sharing for coastal states and has all but killed the spill-response bill to prevent its inclusion.

And the committee’s addition of several new tea party-backed GOP freshman members has caused some strife at committee meetings. Earlier this year, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) raised eyebrows and earned a scolding from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) after he launched into a tirade against efficiency standards — a long-standing area of bipartisan agreement on the committee. He later voted against an efficiency bill from Bingaman and Murkowski and a separate one from Shaheen and GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio that would boost building efficiency standards.

Meanwhile, other bills — from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — remain bogged down due to disagreements by panel members.

“As Bob [Simon] said, we’ve been very productive in getting bills out of committee, but we have other bills that are stuck in committee on both sides that we would both like to get out,” Campbell said.

Some of those measures could see debate in the coming months as Bingaman and Murkowski show no sign of losing steam at the committee level despite the standstill on energy in the full Senate.

Bingaman, for example, is working on a measure that he says he will float in early 2012 that would require utilities to generate a portion of their electricity from low-carbon sources. And while that bill has little chance of movement in the current political climate — a fact he acknowledges — he said debate about such matters is still important to have.

Ever the optimist, he said there is still a chance the Senate could take up some of the committee’s bills next year.

“I still have hopes we can do that,” he said.

Reporter Elana Schor contributed.