The year in federal climate politics and what lies ahead

The year in federal climate politics and what lies ahead

My stomach hurts.

The year is coming to a close, which means us bloggers are obliged to do a year-end post, looking back on the year’s events and looking ahead to what’s next. I’ll be honest, I had second thoughts about whether to publish this post at all — my outlook is pretty gloomy and I don’t want to be a spreader of gloom — but I figure you pay me for the straight scoop. So here it is.

The broad story is that, as bad as it sometimes felt going through it, we are coming to the end of the most productive year of federal climate politics that any of us are likely to experience for a long, long time. I’m not sure it ever really sank in with most people, including Democrats in Congress, but this was the last big shot. After the Build Back Better Act passes (if it passes), that will be it for federal climate legislation.

After that, those of us hoping for climate progress will have to forget about first-best solutions and begin thinking in terms of guerrilla actions, in states, cities, and the private sector. That’s a very different mindset than the push for a centralized solution.

Let’s begin with a quick review of the events of the last year.

The Bidens are sworn in. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Bidens are sworn in. (Photo: Getty Images)

Democrats’ inevitably disappointing legislation limps toward the finish line

Joe Biden entered his first term as president in an impossible situation.

He was swept into office on a wave of high hopes, given total Democratic control over the federal government, in the wake of an election marked by expansive policy promises and record voter turnout.

At the same time, his majority in the Senate — salvaged by the two miraculous Democratic wins in Georgia — is razor-thin. Given the effectively automatic use of the filibuster by Republicans these days, absent filibuster reform, Democrats simply can’t pass bills under regular order. They can only pass bills through budget reconciliation, and even on that, they need the votes of every single one of their senators to do anything.

Given that basic structure, disappointment was inevitable.

Biden and the Democrats started strong out of the gate. Congress delivered the Covid relief bill. Biden issued a flurry of executive orders. Vaccination rates began rising. As long as Democrats were doing stuff, taking action, controlling the news cycle, Biden’s approval rating held up.

Around July-August, two things happened. First, Biden withdrew US troops from Afghanistan, after which the Taliban quickly took control, sparking an extended wave of hysterically negative mainstream press coverage. (Coverage of Biden in right-wing media was, of course, hysterically negative on day one and has been ever since.)

Second, legislative action ground to a halt and segued into months of frustrating negotiations, which continue to this day.

They split their big bill in two, allowing a bipartisan group of senators to hash out a roads-and-bridges infrastructure bill (the bipartisan infrastructure framework, or BIF) while leaving everything else to a second bill. The idea was to give Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) their bipartisan achievement, but to require that they pass it alongside a Dems-only reconciliation bill, the Build Back Better Act (BBB).

At the time, Democrats from Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on down pledged that the BIF would not pass without the BBB. The bills were a single package, they all emphasized. “It's going to be either both or nothing,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said.

What happened instead is that the bipartisan group put together a relatively bare-bones bill and got it passed through the Senate. That put immense pressure on the House to follow suit, despite everyone’s pledges. The progressive caucus, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), held together and refused to pass the BIF for as long as it could, but in November, it relented and the House passed the bill.

Progressives voted for the BIF based on a promise from Biden that he could secure Manchin’s vote for the BBB in something close to its present form. By all appearances thus far, that promise was worth very little. Manchin showed no sign at the time, and has showed no sign since, that he’s willing to vote for BBB as it stands.

In fact, before and after the BIF passed, he has done nothing but talk down the BBB, set arbitrary limits on its total size, and demand that elements be eliminated (like the Clean Electricity Payment Program) or radically pared back (like paid leave).

Sinema has been frustrating throughout the process, but at least for now, it looks like she got what she wanted — protecting Pharma from price competition and corporations from higher taxes — and is now ready to vote the bill through.

Manchin, on the other hand, has been nothing but a jerk, from the very beginning and at every stage. He’s been more of a jerk than is explicable even given the red lean of his state, even given his outlandishly corrupt conflicts of interest. He’s been a vain, inconstant, ill-informed font of conservative economic gibberish, theatrically sticking his thumb in the eyes of the other 49 members of his caucus.

He’s still being a jerk, calling for a “strategic pause” on the bill and citing inflation as a justification. (Economists say that the BBB will alleviate inflation.) He’s out peddling a fake Congressional Budget Office report from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), using it to go after the child tax credit, which is just about the most ignorant and malicious thing he could conceivably be doing.

Schumer keeps setting deadlines to vote on the BBB, but they keep blowing past with no agreement and no repercussions. Last week he was saying Christmas; now they’re talking about some time early next year.

As Biden’s approval rating continues struggling — the negative coverage that began with Afghanistan never ceased — and inflation drags on, Manchin is more and more empowered. He loves where he is right now: at the center of attention, the man in the middle, the Democrat who screws over other Democrats. He’ll stay in that spotlight as long as he can.

And that brings us up to date on the big picture. What about climate policy?

Build Back Better is still good climate policy

On climate, it’s been a roller coaster. Heading into the election, Dems across the party seemed united around an ambitious policy vision. The climate plans of the leading candidates reflected it, including, eventually, Biden’s.

When elected, rather than retreating from that agenda, Biden embraced it. He brought climate activists into the fold to help shape policy. He hired superstars for key energy-related positions. He said all the right things.

When the Covid relief bill was passed and attention turned to the BBB agenda, Sanders led with a $6 trillion proposal that was, among other things, a climate policy buffet. That was in June. Ever since then, Democratic climate plans have diminished.

Sen. Bernie Sanders points toward future spending. (Photo: Getty Images)
Sen. Bernie Sanders points toward future spending. (Photo: Getty Images)

The $6 trillion proposal became a $3.5 trillion proposal. Before the election, Manchin was saying he would support $4 trillion just on infrastructure, but in his new role as Jerk-in-Chief, he decided he would only support $1.5 trillion.

Of course, even after Dems cut down the bill to please him, he kept whacking. He took out the Clean Electricity Payment Program, the one energy policy in the bill that had some financial penalties alongside its rewards. He’s currently trying to kill the EV tax credit bonus for union-made vehicles (the Toyota plant in West Virginia isn’t unionized). He’s jacked up the size of the carbon-capture tax credits.

Who knows what else he’ll do. But it is notable that, when the $3.5 trillion bill was cut to a $1.75 trillion bill and then a $1.5 trillion bill, the overall size of climate spending, around $555 billion, remained almost the same. Clearly Democrats are prioritizing climate.

Despite all the frustrations along the way, it remains true that if the BBB passes in something like its present form, it will represent the biggest investment in carbon mitigation in US history.

As with all climate policy, how you rate it depends on what baseline you choose to measure against. It’s obviously much more than would have happened if Trump had won, or if Democrats had lost in Georgia. That is to say: it’s more than nothing.

It’s much more than the US has ever done before, including in Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill, which prompted enormous growth in clean energy. It’s more than I would have predicted the day after the Georgia elections.

Equally obviously, it’s far short of what’s needed, which is in the tens of trillions over the next several decades. It is unbalanced policy, consisting entirely of carrots (tax breaks and subsidies) with no sticks (regulations or fines) whatsoever. And it’s much worse off, its effects less certain, after Manchin got done with it.

Princeton did some modeling using the House version of the bill and found that, while the BIF alone would yield almost no emission reductions, and BBB + BIF + CEPP would reduce emissions enough to hit the US 2030 emissions target, BBB + BIF would … fall somewhat short, but be a hell of a lot better than BIF alone.

The three big lessons to draw from the modeling are a) the BIF alone is, from a climate perspective, basically worthless, and b) Manchin did serious damage to climate policy by removing the CEPP, however c) BBB remains remains America’s only real hope of staying even close to a safe climate trajectory. It desperately needs to pass.

What’s gonna happen?

My guess is, Manchin will continue being a jerk, whittling down the BBB well into spring, generating more stories about Dems in Disarray, frustrating and demotivating Democratic activists, driving down Biden’s approval rating, and rendering final passage of the bill (I do think something will ultimately pass) a sour affair about which no one will feel particularly excited.

Democrats will celebrate and tout the bill. At least some BBB money will begin reaching voters relatively quickly. But that alone will not be nearly enough to overcome the enormous headwinds facing Dems as they head into the midterms.

One of the only reforms that could make a real dent is the Freedom to Vote Act, which would give judges the power to reject overtly imbalanced redistricting. Without that reform, extreme recent Republican gerrymandering will remain in effect for a decade. It alone will guarantee the GOP the House in 2022, even if every voter votes the same as 2020.

But voting reform requires filibuster reform, and despite some recent buzz, Sinema appears immovable on the subject. Between her and Manchin, filibuster reform seems unlikely, which means voting reform is unlikely, which means Democrats are probably heading for a crushing defeat in the midterms. They stand to lose dozens of seats and control of the House.

Whether they lose the Senate depends on the size of the wave, which depends somewhat on events over the next year, particularly what happens with gas prices. If things go just right, Dems could hang on to the Senate. If things go poorly, they could lose it.

Either way, without the House, there will be no more federal legislating for Democrats — not in the last two years of Biden’s administration, likely not in the next 10 years, if not longer.

If they keep the Senate in 2022, Dems can stave off an impeachment (at least a successful one), install more good judges, and allow Biden space to pursue his executive agenda. If they lose it, some kind of impeachment effort becomes likely (Republicans will make something up). Certainly the final two years of Biden’s presidency will be defensive.

Controlling the House will allow Republicans to launch endless bogus investigations and subpoena Democratic lawmakers in retribution for the Jan. 6 panel. It will allow them even greater control over the news cycle. But most importantly, it will allow them to throw the 2024 election to Trump, no matter how many votes he receives.

As the Jan. 6 investigation has made extremely clear, Trump and his allies tried their best to steal the 2020 election. They were stopped by a few key Republican officials and (oddly) Vice President Mike Pence. They have been busy ever since clearing those obstructions, stocking key state election offices and legislatures with loyalists, gerrymandering safe districts in the House, and passing voter suppression laws across the country. They intend to accuse Democrats of cheating and steal the 2024 presidential election — they aren’t even particularly hiding it.

In short, US democracy is lurching toward one-party authoritarianism and I don’t see forces on the horizon capable of stopping it.

That’s a grim place to conclude our year in review, I realize. I don’t want to bum everyone out. Obviously, everyone should do everything in their power to prevent this outcome. Nothing is written in advance; there is always a chance the tide can be beat back. But at the same time, it’s worth thinking through how Biden and Democrats can maximize the coming year to minimize the damage.

And it’s worth beginning to think about how, if the federal government is taken off the board, climate progress can be made through subnational governments and the private sector.

I’ll have more to say soon on the positive story unfolding outside the federal government. And more to say about what four more years of Trump and Republicans could mean for the climate effort. But for now, I’ll just conclude by saying: the BBB must pass, no matter what. Everything depends on it.

Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)