I had, perhaps foolishly, higher hopes than usual for the latest attempt to pass climate legislation in the US Senate. Harry Reid killed that completely, formally, yesterday. So I was very frustrated for the rest of the day. I’ve been discussing these multi-faceted frustrations with many of the environmental bloggers I know and trying to work out the next course of action, on what I consider to be the most important policy issue of the era. I will be discussing this more during the coming days, in lieu of my planned action/public lobbying posts (I canceled the one on Thursday about calling Senators and won’t be doing the one today about lobbying the White House).
But I think DR Grist (David Roberts) had an excellent post-mortem on the dead climate legislation attempt, in which he made a number of strong points. The two linked points I choose to highlight today are these… first:
Every cowardly senator repeats it like a talisman to ward off the terrible threat of having to act: “We don’t have the votes.” Two things to say about that. First, of course you don’t have votes for something this controversial before you go to the floor and force the issue. Pelosi didn’t have the votes before she took the House bill to the floor. She got the votes by twisting arms and making deals. She forced the issue. That was the only way the Senate vote could ever work — if the bill was put on the floor, the issue was forced, and Dems united in daring the GOP to vote against addressing the oil spill. There’s no guarantee that would have worked, but at least it would have been a political rallying point. It would have put senators on record. And it’s not like the wimpy avoidance strategy is producing better results.
We will never know if the votes are there or not unless we bring these provisions up for votes. It seems inconceivable to me that the Democrats could be taking a political bigger risk at this point by holding and losing big policy votes than by getting nothing done for two years. After all, the public elects them to cast votes and after a while will lose patience with the idea that they can sit there for six years and not cast any major votes in order to avoid casting risky votes. The Senate Democrats are risking their majority by not getting anything done, and they are not getting anything done because they are sure that they will risk their majority by voting on potentially controversial things and losing… somehow.
Like the House Democrats as a caucus, some individual Senate Democrats have put out themselves on the line publicly supporting climate policy provisions that will be unpopular with special interests, only to find the Senate as a whole isn’t planning to even hold a vote, let alone pass it so they have something to show for their courage. Mark Begich of Alaska, for example, is a moderate freshman Democrat from a conservative oil-producing state and he supported this plan publicly; that kind of willingness to take political risks shouldn’t be rewarded with another failure from lack of even trying.
And to finish quoting David Roberts’ related point:
Second, senators need to stop talking about “60 votes” as though it’s in the Constitution that the U.S. Senate — unlike every other legislative body on the planet — has a supermajority requirement. It’s not in the Constitution. It’s an accident, an informal rule that Republicans have taken to relentlessly abusing, not to extend debate but simply to degrade the Senate’s ability to act. The filibuster is anti-democratic and it is thwarting the country’s will. The American people need to be told this and senators who still want their institution to be minimally functional need to start getting angry about it.
This was not only another failed climate bill attempt, but one more failed bill attempt in general for the Democrats because of the myth of 60. The blame for this latest failure lies with them almost as much as with the ever-obstructive Republicans. I have condemned many of these Senate Democrats individually over the past year and half, but I reserve my strongest condemnation of failure for Harry Reid on this one. It was his (great) idea to merge the must-pass Spill Bill with climate and energy legislation. We knew it would be limited, but he got our hopes up by claiming (along with others like Kerry and Lieberman) that the caucus was uncharacteristically totally united behind this effort… and then he failed to deliver on this and by extension the job he is most required to do: lead. Now, having failed to unite his own caucus, let alone gather bipartisan support, he has punted climate legislation to November or beyond, when it will have even less chance of passage.
The extent to which I despise the pathetic failure of a US Senate Majority Leader we have right now has now reached unfathomable levels. I don’t say that lightly. I don’t despise the man himself, but the job he is doing (or not doing, more accurately) as “Leader.” When he uses the phrase “we don’t have the votes” — or lets others in key committee roles use the phrase — or refuses to pursue filibuster reform actively, it’s like he expects that votes will materialize when they feel the time is right, and that if we keep vaguely chopping legislation down without any real give-and-take negotiations, eventually 60 lost Senators will wander back to the fold and agree to vote for whatever half-assed stone soup has been assembled (or still remains).
One never gets the feeling that Harry Reid is shepherding the flock toward anything in particular or that he even has a bell to lead them home. They’re more like free-range chickens. That’s why I say he’s a pathetic failure as Majority Leader. And because his Republican opponent is out-of-her-mind crazy, he’ll be re-elected this year, which means at least another two years of his leadership, since he’s unlikely to step aside and won’t be challenged (or at least not successfully, since his hands-off style is exactly what most of the ego-maniacal Democratic caucus members love in a majority leader). Sure, the White House should get some of the blame too for not taking a more active role in pushing the Senate on these things, and that’s probably a function of President Obama’s tenure as a legislator himself for many years, but Harry Reid’s very title should command some level of reasonable expectation that he will lead the caucus.
For now, it will be time to re-evaluate on climate change mitigation efforts, perhaps by supporting inclusion of a strong renewable energy standard, as DR Grist suggests (although Reid also doesn’t want that), or by defending the Environmental Protection Agency vigorously as it works to regulate CO2 emissions without Congressional action. To be continued, as they say, but I wanted to make some initial comment on this Senate failure first…
This essay was originally published at Starboard Broadside.