With the midterm elections dividing control between Republicans and Democrats, will Congress produce only partisan bickering and gridlock for the next two years? And will this further delay meaningful US efforts to address global climate change?
Quite the contrary. We are confident the prospects for important steps forward have improved significantly.
While most House Democrats next year will represent districts that vote reliably for Democrats, several come from districts that can vote either way and have indeed voted reliably for Republicans for several years. Simply confronting President Trump will not return these vulnerable Democrats to Washington in 2020. They will have to demonstrate to their constituents that they helped solve some of the nation’s many pressing problems. The next Speaker of the House will be well aware of this and do everything possible to help these vulnerable Democrats pass bills they can talk about proudly back home.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, where a net change of three or four seats would give Democrats the majority, Republicans will be defending 22 seats. Simply supporting President Trump and confirming judges will not return these Republican Senators to Washington. They also will have to show the folks back home that they helped resolve pressing national issues.
The benefit of a divided Congress is that Republicans and Democrats will have to work together if they want to get anything done – as demanded by the constituents of the most vulnerable members of both parties. That doesn’t mean the parties won’t continue fighting over today’s marquee items, and doesn’t mean a conflict-focused media will give marquee treatment to areas of agreement. But it does mean that, below the radar, a great deal of energy will be invested on both sides of the aisle in moving bipartisan common ground legislation on a wide range of topics.
Every lobbying shop in Washington, DC knows this. Since the election, K Street has produced miles of memos for interested clients, identifying the policy areas in which there may be enough common ground for Congress to pass laws. Preexisting health conditions, drug prices, and infrastructure appear on most lists, but there are other important issues where the political imperative can foster progress as well – in some cases by forcing lawmakers to compromise, but in others by liberating them to pursue common ground solutions that have waited years for the right circumstances.
What about climate and clean energy? Is there any prospect for agreement on climate and clean energy policy in the next two years.
Even in the past two years, with the White House and both houses of Congress under the leadership of individuals who have expressed skepticism about climate science while championing fossil fuels, bipartisan agreement has led to the enactment of laws that:
Maintained or expanded tax incentives for solar, wind, and carbon capture technologies;
Continued funding for the Department of Energy’s renewable energy, energy efficiency, and advanced R&D programs, despite the Trump administration’s repeated demands that they be sharply reduced;
Allowed the Department of Defense to continue to assess its vulnerability to climate change and develop non-fossil energy sources.
In addition, the Senate voted to defend Obama-era regulations that required oil and gas companies to limit releases of methane, a potent global warming pollutant.
And that was with climate champions holding almost no cards.
While much more progress is required, and while one may reasonably debate the merits of tax incentives and subsidies that choose technological winners and losers, these examples demonstrate that space for bipartisan action existed even in the out-going Congress. The new Congress will offer much more space.
That said, several Republican members of the House Climate Solutions Caucus were defeated. The Caucus, which is strictly bipartisan - no Democrats are allowed to join unless partnered with a Republican - gives its members a chance to take a public stand on the need to address climate change. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), co-founder of the Caucus and the author of a carbon tax bill, lost his reelection effort. Some observers are wondering how productive it will be for Republicans to work with environmentalists if even the Republican author of a carbon tax bill found himself a Democratic target and undefended by prominent environmental groups. But there is more to the story.
Nineteen Republican members of the Climate Solutions Caucus found exploration of climate solutions to be part of a winning formula, including the Curbelo bill’s two Republican cosponsors, Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Francis Rooney (R-FL), and the current co-chair of the Caucus, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY). Even with the midterm losses, more Republicans will return to the House in January as members of the Caucus than did two years ago.
Furthermore, conservation and stewardship are traditional Republican values, and polls show that significant numbers of Republicans believe effects of global warming have begun, and that it is caused by human activities (41% and 40% respectively in a March 2018 Gallup poll). Conservative groups that support action on climate and clean energy continue to grow. Several focus on explaining the economic, public health, national security, and moral implications of climate change to conservative voters and policy makers, while some advocate for concrete solutions consistent with conservative values, including policies that would put a price on carbon without growing the size of government.
What kinds of climate and clean energy measures might pass a Congress in which both parties are forced, or freed, to find common ground? To name one, Republican and Democratic bills have been introduced in this Congress that would create a carbon price, not through a carbon tax, but through the inverse – establishing tax incentives for energy technologies that either have no carbon emissions or sharply-reduced carbon emissions. Republicans like tax cuts, including those for clean energy technologies, and Democrats like clean energy technologies, including those advanced through tax cuts.
Another area of common ground is renewable energy, which of course is part of the solution to climate change. Polls show solid and growing support for renewable energy among both Republican and Democratic voters. Nevada voters, for example, just passed a measure to increase their renewable energy standard for electricity to 50% by 2030, joining a growing number of cities, states, and even countries.
Clearly, bipartisan cooperation on any issue has proved challenging recently. But this new political context offers real opportunities for progress on climate and clean energy – progress that can be sustained if it has bipartisan support. This is where our efforts must be directed.