How the Senate Killed Climate and Obama Helped it Die


Photo: Wikipedia CC BY

Yes, the entire week has gone by, and for one reason or another I haven't yet commented on the New Yorker piece on the climate bill that sent ripples around the climate blogosphere. Hell, it inspired Grist's Dave Roberts to write at least 4 or 5 more pieces about the lessons to be learned from the debacle. In short, Ryan Lizza's excellent reporting reveals all that is wrong with the Senate -- and generally in American politics -- and how, combined with a series of major blunders from the Obama administration, that corrupt, confused institution dropped the ball on what is perhaps the most important legislation of our time. The two or three basic lessons you take away from the piece -- and you do have to read the whole thing -- aren't exactly revelatory. But seeing them illustrated up front and center in such painful detail literally made me squirm while reading the thing. And those lessons, are pretty much as follows: Senators are uninformed, ego-driven dealmakers who rarely have a firm grasp of an issue as complex as climate change. Lindsay Graham certainly did not, for instance. Instead, they each had strategic and personal reasons for supporting the legislation first and foremost -- whether they wanted to write a major bill or to reshape their reputation, actually addressing climate change is pretty low on the list of motivations.

The piece details a long list of senators who claim to be interested in helping the cause, but make ridiculous demands for pork in their state as a requisite for coming to the table, or back out when the political mood shifts, or who will abstain from the process for personal reasons. Check out this depiction of how the process works:

The K.G.L. coalition had two theories about how to win over Republicans and moderate Democrats. One was to negotiate directly with them and offer them something specific for their support. After a year of that method, the coalition had one Republican, and its next most likely target wanted to drill in ANWR. Other Republicans were slipping away. Shortly before Thanksgiving, George LeMieux, of Florida, approached Graham in the Senate gym and expressed interest in joining K.G.L. "Let me teach you something about this town," Graham told him. "You can't come that easy." Graham was trying to give the new senator some advice, according to aides involved with the negotiations: LeMieux would be foolish to join the effort without extracting something for himself.
That was a potential Republican vote that Graham just shooed away -- because first and foremost, the power structure in the Senate must be observed.

Second, it's startling and depressing to see how beholden the senators are to industry and business leaders -- they cut deals, seek their approval, allow legislation to be flat out written by them. The very industry such a bill is seeking to reform is essentially calling the shots, at least with the approach Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham undertook. I don't think I need to point out how unhealthy it is to have legislators relying so heavily on business for input and support in drafting the nation's laws.

Finally, the piece confirms what many green writers long suspected: That Obama made a series of truly bad decisions, out of concert with the Senators drafting the climate bill, that helped lead directly to its demise. He simply offered to expand nuclear and offshore drilling, without using such measures as a bargaining tool, leaving KGL little bargain with. He shot Graham in the foot by calling his measure a 'Gas Tax' preemptively, giving Fox News juicy material to lambast him with. But most of all, his administration was distant on the issue, offered little insight on the policy side, and even less by way of public support. At the insistence of his advisers, Obama sat on the sidelines and watched as the bill died, only rushing in to join the game at inopportune times and messing things up further.

All in all, it's pretty depressing stuff -- and further adds fuel to the argument that the Senate is in need of serious reform, and Obama in need of a more pointed legislative strategy.

More on the Climate Bill in the Senate
The 7 Things That Killed the Climate Bill
It's Official: The Climate Bill is Dead

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