Experts assess failure of Senate, future of policy in U.S.

As top-tier issues for the Obama administration, climate and energy policies were expected to cross the finish line this year. But as talks progressed in the Senate, a partisan scene emerged, making compromise and passage of a bill difficult. In this Special Report, E&ETV takes a look back at the Senate's missteps and looks ahead to the future of climate policy in the United States. Interviews include: Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change; Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), ranking member of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming; Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy; James Connaughton, executive vice president of corporate affairs, public and environmental policy at Constellation Energy; Scott Segal, partner in the Government Relations and Strategy Section at Bracewell & Giuliani; and Dan Lashof, director of the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council.


James Sensenbrenner: I think that cap and tax failed in the Senate because the senators realized the vast detriment to our economy in a recessionary time that doubling or tripling various kinds of energy bills would cause. I'd like to take the credit for the failure not only in the Senate, but worldwide.

Scott Segal: I think anyone objective looking at what happened in the U.S. Senate would say that at times the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee can be a little dysfunctional. Which is to say it's a sharply partisan committee and this is an issue that in order for it to succeed needed bipartisanship, needed a really open discussion. If you look at Environment and Public Works committees of the past with like a John Chafee or even a Max Baucus or whoever might have been chairman, even back to Lloyd Benson, these were committees where they really talked to one another across partisan lines. Because the theory was that environmental issues don't have to be partisan. Energy issues don't have to be partisan. They can be regional and people can fight over them a whole lot, but they don't have to be partisan. In recent years that's been turned about. The committee is intensely partisan and, as a result, a bill which needed across-the-aisle cooperation didn't get it and so it died.

Dan Lashof: I think fundamentally it was a minority in the Senate that wanted to say "no" to everything and said "no" to this as being something that was part of the president's agenda and they saw a strategy that seemed to be working and were blocking everything.

Karen Harbert: I don't think any Republican or Democrat wakes up in the morning and says, "Let's do everything we can to stop energy policy."

Monica Trauzzi: The finger pointing continues in Washington after climate and energy discussions in the Senate collapsed this summer. As many members enter their last weeks of campaigning ahead of the November midterms, should the White House have done more to make energy and climate a central issue for Congress?

Jim Connaughton: I think the most important thing is the White House should have produced their own bill and then taken on all sides. When a president wants to get something done, it's always best when he says this is the way to do it and I'll take the right and I'll take the left, just as we had to when I was in government, and then you shape toward that common ground. And it works every time, but if the president is not defining what he wants to do and doing it in a reasonable way, you know, balancing all interests and a good-faith effort on that front, it's very hard to get something of this complexity and intensity moving.

Karen Harbert: Well, you know what, we really didn't see that big, big push from the White House on energy and climate policy that I think everybody suspected. They just assumed it would be there, that the president would be out leading the charge and we really saw them take a far more measured approach, that they weren't willing to put as much emphasis as they did on health care on environment and climate and energy policy. And, ultimately, they paid the price for that.

Dan Lashof: What's next? The Environmental Protection Agency has the responsibility and the authority under the Supreme Court decision to start taking steps to reduce global warming pollution, to put in place standards for doing that. We expect them to move forward. We will be urging them to do that and, you know, with Congress being unable to move the ball forward with comprehensive legislation, the height of irresponsibility would be for them to actually go backward and interfere with EPA doing its job. And I don't think there's any public support for undermining EPA's responsibility to curb this pollution. So I think EPA will move forward.

Eileen Claussen: I mean, we already have and we saw it earlier this year, I mean, efforts to get EPA not to regulate greenhouse gases, we're going to see more of that. If there are appropriations bills, and it's possible for the next couple of years we only have continuing resolutions, but if we have appropriations bills, will there be attempts to do riders to stop EPA from doing it? I'm sure there will be. Will these things pass? Unclear, we need to see what happens in the election. Will Obama veto any of them? Unclear, I think we need to see what happens in the election in November to sort of gauge where that might be.

Monica Trauzzi: Will the outcome in November and the impending regulation of emissions by EPA spur Congress to act quickly or are lawmakers suffering from climate fatigue?

Eileen Claussen: I don't think anyone would suggest that something could happen with cap and trade in the short term.

Scott Segal: Let me tell you why I am confident that in the first quarter of 2011 we will see a more spirited and perhaps more productive debate over energy policy, maybe even including climate policy. If you look historically, the times that we have had the most productive congressional reaction to major environmental legislation has been at a time when not all parts of the Congress and the White House were controlled by the same political party. Because here's what happens. If one political party controls both the White House and both houses of Congress. Then there is an overwhelming temptation to produce legislation which is essentially for the majority and by the majority that doesn't really include and enfranchise minority opinions on these subjects.

James Sensenbrenner: Cap and tax is a dead issue and the sooner the advocates of cap and tax realize it's a dead issue, the sooner we'll be able to make some progress on the entire climate issue. As long as they peg their hats on the cap-and-tax issue, I think we're going to continue a debate that's been going on for at least 13 years with nothing being passed in the Congress.

Karen Harbert: I think cap and trade is dead. Certainly this type of cap and trade. Is environmental policy dead? Absolutely not. I think what we are seeing right now, which is troubling to a lot of people in the business community, is to make up for it we're seeing very ambitious regulation. And I think that's where Congress needs to step in and really say, "Wait a minute, we can do this. We can do it right. We don't need to overregulate areas of the energy and environmental economy."

Jim Connaughton: I do believe there needs to be a rethink on the Republican side and also a rethink on the Democratic side about how to move forward legislatively. Because everybody agrees we need legislation to do this. It is the much preferred path. It will keep costs under control. It will hopefully be more market-based. But the Republicans have to come to a more market-based solution and the Democrats have to abandon some of their more command-and-control or tax-based solutions. It can be done. The willingness to get it done is the challenge.



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