House Dems game out climate messaging at policy retreat

By Emma Dumain | 02/09/2024 06:39 AM EST

The party is gearing up for the 2024 election with a series of legislative accomplishments under its belt, but many lawmakers fear voters haven’t felt the policy wins.

President Joe Biden with Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.).

“We invested ... in combating the climate crisis, to turn the situation around and ensure there will be clean water, clean air and clean energy in every single community,” said Hakeem Jeffries (center) in a speech introducing President Joe Biden (left), seen here on stage with Pete Aguilar (right). Andrew Harnik/AP

LEESBURG, Virginia — Democrats have a challenge heading into the November elections: tout political victories from a historic climate law that in many cases have yet to materialize.

It’s a topic that Democratic members of the House grappled with this week at their annual “issues conference” in the Washington exurb. Lawmakers gathered to discuss how best to convince voters about their policy wins and plot their strategy for retaking the majority in 2025.

Part of that strategy will be successfully selling the Inflation Reduction Act, the massive social spending package that included the largest-ever federal investment to combat the climate crisis.


Top administration officials from the Energy, Transportation and Treasury departments were on hand in Leesburg on Friday to talk up IRA implementation.

For voters who care about the environment, supporting the party that painstakingly spearheaded that bill over the finish line could seem a no-brainer.

Democrats, in stump speeches to the party base, aren’t shying away from connecting the Inflation Reduction Act to cause of mitigating the worst effects of global warming.

“We invested — in the largest way in the history of the world — in combating the climate crisis, to turn the situation around and ensure there will be clean water, clean air and clean energy in every single community,” said House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) to a room full of cheering House Democrats in a speech introducing President Joe Biden at the Lansdowne Resort, where the issues conference took place.

Biden, in his remarks to members Thursday, said Democrats must prevail in the 2024 election to “continu[e] the fight to save the planet.”

The administration has been playing up its crusade against the climate crisis to endear the president to activists who have complained about the White House’s support for some fossil fuel projects — adding to Democrats’ burdens in an election year marked by grumbling over the economy, fights over border policy and the president’s low approval ratings.

But that talking point alone isn’t going to be what drives people to the polls, said Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.), the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Democrats instead need to focus on what the climate gains in the Inflation Reduction Act would mean for people’s pocketbooks.

“It’s all about how you message it with voters. In Latino communities, if you talk about climate change, it’s kind of abstract for them,” she told POLITICO’s E&E News, echoing points she made at a press conference with Hispanic Caucus members earlier in the day.

“If you say, ‘Oh, we’re going to save billions of dollars on energy’ — when you tell somebody that, that doesn’t mean anything to them until you talk to them and how it is going to impact them,” Barragán continued. “[If you say], ‘you’re going to get a new refrigerator and save money by using less energy,’ that is sometimes how it happens.”

Ultimately, she added, “people are not feeling some of the benefits of what we’ve passed because they are not yet gone into effect.”

‘A real sense of urgency’

There are more tangible examples around the country already when it comes to the Inflation Reduction Act, with red districts benefiting from the green manufacturing boom alongside blue districts.

The left-leaning nonprofit advocacy group Climate Power recently reported that of the 388 clean energy projects that have advanced since the passage of the climate law, 200 of them are in congressional districts currently held by Republicans. POLITICO’s own analyses of spending triggered by the law have made similar findings.

It’s even led to instances in which Republicans have attempted to take credit for the success of a bill they aggressively opposed, attending ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings for clean energy projects in their districts without conceding that the investments are results of a law that GOP lawmakers have tried on multiple occasions to undermine through legislation.

While some Republicans insist they like many of the energy tax credits, the GOP at large has panned the bill as a massive subsidy that they maintain will actually cause inflation to increase. Some say they’d be glad to repeal the entire law even if it jeopardized projects back at home.

Democrats, including Biden, said Thursday that they must combat this narrative on the campaign trail.

At the same time, while many of the clean energy tax credits created through the IRA have gone into effect — including those for solar panels and electric vehicles — state energy offices are still in the process of rolling out the rebate programs aimed at getting these credits to consumers. In many cases, Treasury has yet to provide guidance, and accompanying regulations necessary for new programs to go into effect are still at large.

“My colleagues and I have a real sense of urgency to keep rolling out these investments and the polices and not let the bureaucracy and red tape bog things down,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), one of Congress’ most vocal climate hawks.

“It’s one of the reasons why I was so frustrated the DOE took so long to stand up its heat pump incentives — the rebates — because now people aren’t going to have a chance to get those rebates before the election.”

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the former House Democratic leader who is now chairing the Regional Leadership Council, which is focused on educating members about IRA implementation, came to Leesburg with printed-out fact sheets on IRA gains tailored to every specific district.

The memos include district-specific data on high-speed internet, health care savings, insulin caps, airports and veterans. They don’t arm members with equivalent statistics about the clean energy incentives their constituents could soon reap.

“Obviously, energy is very, very important,” Hoyer said in an interview Thursday. “A way to talk about it is, ‘We’re giving credit to you, and it can mean, for instance, $7,500 to you, you purchase an electric car.'”

He acknowledged, though, that IRA victories are, in general, “more difficult” to explain to voters and “harder to see,” since many of the credits have not yet been implemented: “It’s a little longer term, as opposed to insulin going to $35, which you see right away.”

Top officials talk implementation

Hoyer said it was incumbent upon Democrats to “effectively communicate the positive impact of what we did, because this election isn’t, ‘OK, you guys are great.’ It’s about what we’re going to do in the future.”

He moderated a panel Friday morning on IRA implementation messaging with Pete Buttigieg, secretary of Transportation; Wally Adeyemo, deputy secretary of Treasury; Natalie Quillian, White House deputy chief of staff; and Jigar Shah, director of the Loans Program Office at the Department of Energy.

At the same time, the theme of this year’s issues conference is “finish the job,” and Democrats are focused on finding creative ways to connect the dots and explain to voters that the bill they helped pass in 2022 will soon be bearing fruit and producing cost-savings in people’s everyday lives.

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he was reaching voters on IRA gains through faith community, describing a recent meeting he held at a Black church in his district to share information about the landmark climate law. He added he was urging other lawmakers in the Black Caucus to do the same thing in their districts.

“We have to make sure that people who will benefit the most — particularly underserved minorities, communities of color — know about the benefits, and they know how to access them,” Horsford said.

Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), the vice chair for policy for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he was focusing on what’s actually happening on the ground, if not with the Inflation Reduction Act then through the infrastructure law or the CHIPS and Science Act — two other packages Democrats passed in the 117th Congress that are leading to economic and job growth while also helping the environment.

“I would challenge you to find a member of the Democratic Caucus that doesn’t have one project [in their district] between infrastructure, the IRA and CHIPS Act,” he told E&E News. “I have yet to meet a member where they have nothing. But if that member does exist, they need to talk about what they’re gonna work on to get that.

“What I see more of is members on the other side trying to claim credit when they voted against all those bills,” Soto said of Republicans. “And I never call it the ‘bipartisan infrastructure law’ in Florida because no Florida Republican voted for it. … You’ll never hear me use the ‘b word’ when I talk about the infrastructure law, because they deserve zero credit for it.”