A resolution that blasts carbon taxes as harmful to the U.S. economy presented Democrats with a rare chance yesterday to debate climate change on the House floor.
Instead, several Democratic lawmakers used the procedural fight to talk about immigration, Russia and prescription drug prices — a move that they said was in response to the carbon measure’s lack of seriousness.
At issue is a nonbinding "sense of Congress" resolution from House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). It broadly dismisses the idea of taxing carbon emissions. The House voted yesterday to move ahead with the Scalise measure, and a final vote is expected today.
The debate comes days ahead of the anticipated release of a separate carbon tax proposal from Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) that would replace the federal gas tax with a $23-per-ton levy on emissions from energy industry facilities such as gas processing plants.
The House voted on a resolution similar to the Scalise measure in 2016, and it received full Republican support. But there are signs that Scalise’s current version won’t receive the same GOP backing. Curbelo, who co-founded the Climate Solutions Caucus, already has said he would vote against it.
House Democrats don’t like the Scalise resolution either, and they accused Republicans of wasting lawmakers’ time on a proposal that has little legislative heft.
"We have real issues to address," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). "The American people deserve more than show votes that throw red meat to the oil lobby."
Soon after, McGovern — who serves as the top Democrat on the Rules Committee — ushered a slew of Democratic colleagues to the podium to highlight another issue: Russian interference in the 2016 elections. They called on Republican leaders to use the carbon tax resolution as a vehicle to steer money to election security.
"This is the integrity of our democracy," said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.).
Not surprisingly, the gamesmanship didn’t gain traction with the GOP majority, which blocked the move as it kept trying to return the debate to the resolution itself.
"A carbon tax is an attack on the welfare of all Americans, especially on seniors and families on fixed income," said Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.).
Democratic opposition wasn’t limited solely to non-climate matters. Several lawmakers took issue with the Scalise measure itself — including Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine).
She called it a "love note to the fossil fuel industry" and said Congress would be better served by focusing on the "real issues around climate change" such as extreme weather, ocean acidification and rising sea levels.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said any serious debate about a carbon tax will have to wait until January, when Democrats potentially could control the House.
"It doesn’t matter," Blumenauer said. "It’s a stupid and meaningless resolution. It’s not tied to anything specific, it’s not tied to any of the proposals."
The debate is being closely watched by environmental groups, which are keeping an eye on climate-conscious Republicans — particularly those on the Climate Solutions Caucus.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and 15 other conservation groups penned a letter yesterday of opposition, adding to a long list of environmentalists, think tanks and fossil fuel groups that have weighed in on the nonbinding resolution.
"At a time when the American taxpayer is already paying to move vulnerable American communities to higher ground because of climate-driven sea level rise and parts of the country are still recovering from the last hurricane season, lawmakers should not be pursuing hyper-partisan actions to stifle and silence thoughtful, informed debate on climate action," the groups wrote.
Taxing carbon is not an easy sell, even for moderate Republicans. It stirs up basic ideological objections.
Rep. Scott Taylor, a GOP member of the Climate Solutions Caucus who represents coastal Virginia, said he didn’t know how he would vote on the Scalise resolution. But he opposes the idea of a carbon tax, he said.
"I think it’s punitive," Taylor said. "I’m against taxing people. I do think we should be good stewards of our environment, and I’ve put forth legislation to deal with those issues in terms of sea-level rise and things like that."
Taylor said there are areas where Democrats and Republicans can come together on the issue — namely on adaptation. But a carbon tax doesn’t fit the conservative mold.
"I like incentives more than I like punitive actions," he said.
This story also appears in Climatewire.