With no say in their chamber's agenda but an ambitious goal of reclaiming the majority, House Democrats are turning to energy and environmental issues in their latest bid to promote an alternative to the GOP economic agenda ahead of the 2012 election.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) later today will announce a Monday hearing of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on the job-creation benefits of "protecting the taxpayer and securing our energy future," according to a copy of the announcement obtained by Greenwire. The hearing is expected to home in on the clean-energy funding that could be freed up by rolling back subsidies for major oil companies, a proposal outlined in President Obama's State of the Union address.
"By investing in innovation, clean energy, and new technology, we can strengthen our future, put Americans back to work, preserve our national security, and ensure our country's competitiveness in the global economy for generations to come," Pelosi said in a statement on the hearing.
The shadow hearing is not Democrats' first move to turn "green jobs" into a key facet of their political message, but its timing -- as the party stands en masse against the Republican spending bill that passed last week -- could prove pivotal. Several members of the steering committee, which includes many Pelosi allies, say their party would benefit from directly connecting White House-backed energy investments to potential employment gains.
Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), a member of the steering committee, said Democrats can use the panel as a stage "to counter what some of these [GOP] committees" are doing to condemn federal regulations. U.S. EPA emissions and agricultural rulemakings have seen particular scrutiny from the new House Republican majority.
"We haven't really seen what Republicans are going to do about job creation," he said in an interview last week. A member of the centrist and tech-minded New Democrat coalition, Larsen cited advanced manufacturing investments as well as research and development incentives as tangible proposals that would bolster a pitch for "the clean energy economy."
"I'm not going to tell you there are no regulations that should be repealed and scaled back -- there are -- but doing that and only that" without boosting clean energy investments, Larsen added, "is going to lead to no economic recovery."
House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings of Maryland, one of four senior Democrats slated to appear at Monday's steering panel hearing, echoed Larsen's sentiment about the importance of countering GOP committee efforts.
Cummings said his fellow Oversight members will make a concerted effort this session to hold hearings on topics that the committee's Republican chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, is not interested in examining.
"I think that the main problem is that in many instances, in for instance our committee -- in Government Reform, Mr. Issa has said we can make requests but for every five of his hearings, we may get one," Cummings said.
As the GOP invokes ongoing unrest in the Middle East to clamor for more offshore oil drilling, the steering panel affords Democrats the chance to put their own energy-focused spin on current events.
At the committee's first shadow hearing on Feb. 2, a witness from the AFL-CIO touted the union's partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to sell lawmakers on the need for a new long-term federal transportation bill.
"The fact of the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce working together on this issue gives you all a lot of power, and the ability to influence those decisionmakers that just want to come in and cut for the sake of cutting, because it might look good politically," said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) at that hearing.
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), one of only a handful of red-state Democrats who did not suffer politically after voting for the 2009 House climate change bill, said his party should "stay on the case" to let voters in coal country know about the job-creation potential of renewable energy projects.
"We're involved in, from my perspective, an educational role as well as a policy role," Yarmuth said in an interview last week.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the Energy and Commerce panel's top Democrat, said "there will probably be more" minority-run hearings on major policy issues as the 112th Congress unfolds.
That Democrats would turn to little-known committees to channel their message on major policy issues is not surprising, given the lack of control and loss of subpoena power that comes with life in the minority.
Among the shadow hearings held in recent years was a "mock" impeachment hearing of President George W. Bush staged by House Democrats in June 2005, when opposition to the Iraq war was reaching a peak. The House GOP employed a similar strategy in 2009, holding a "forum" to criticize a proposed revision to the Patriot Act while slamming Democrats for their handling of the measure.
"It appears that no hearing will be held on this ill-advised piece of legislation and it will go straight to markup, an unwarranted departure from regular committee process," said House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), then the panel's ranking member, during that 2009 event.
Yet such shadow-government efforts are not assured of the media interest and public attention that official hearings tend to grab. Senate Democrats found a somewhat winning formula in 2005 with a series of Policy Committee hearings, chaired by then-Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), that won broader notice for oversight of war contracting.
But the senators' eye-catching focus on incidents such as cash payments to contractors and toxic Pentagon "burn pits" failed to move the majority party toward substantive policy changes. Dorgan pushed for a select committee to continue investigating contracting waste and fraud but failed to win GOP support, and the idea languished until Democrats took both houses of Congress in 2006.
Whether or not the energy-focused steering committee hearings sway any House Republicans to embrace the Obama administration's proposed "clean energy standard" for electric utilities or its federal innovation spending, Democrats are likely to pursue the concept for as long as it gains traction in the public sphere.
Another lawmaker on the Democratic steering panel, Financial Services ranking member Barney Frank of Massachusetts, offered a simple principle when asked whether he would plan shadow hearings to counter Republicans. "It depends on whether people in your business will cover them," Frank told a reporter last week. "Then we'll have them."