2010 - %3, August

Is Cap and Trade To Blame for the Death of the Climate Bill?

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 2:29 PM PDT

Last week, longtime environmental researcher/campaigner Charles Komanoff published a piece in The Nation called "Senate Climate Bill Dies—Does the Environment Win?" I took issue with the piece on Twitter—I may have used the word "loony"—and it caught the eye of Nation editors. They arranged for Komanoff and I to do a brief debate on Grit.tv with Laura Sanders. (Why I agreed to do a video when I was working at home, had just rolled out of bed, and could not look more like a dirty f'ing hippie, I do not know.)

I seem to have gotten a reputation as someone who defends cap-and-trade at all costs—a running dog lackey of Big Green and Corporate Dems and Wall Street and so on. Naturally I dispute this! I think my position has been misconstrued, in part due to some category errors.

To my mind, Komanoff has fallen prey to what Matt Yglesias calls the Pundit's Fallacy: the notion that what politicians really ought to do, or ought to have done, to achieve political success is what the pundit favors on substantive grounds. It's one thing to argue your policy will reduce greenhouse gases more efficiently; it's another entirely to argue that it can overcome the substantial political barriers to enactment. C&T's policy competitors haven't told a plausible story about that yet.

Just to stake out a specific spot in all this:

1. Cap-and-trade was the only federal climate policy that had any chance of passing in 2010. In 2008, both presidential candidates backed it. It had the support of a wide range of stakeholders, including large corporations, military groups, religious groups, green groups, and swing-state legislators. It had been put before the Senate before and analyzed to death by relevant congressional staffs and executive agencies. Even so, it was, obviously, a long shot.

That is why I spent so much time defending cap-and-trade from attacks: because it was at hand and good enough. The progressive punditosphere is beset with pony hunters whose alternative policy would supposedly vault over all the work that's been done on cap-and-trade with the Power of Sheer Logic if only Big Green would permit it. In the end, though, all the alternative policy scuffles, including the one over the Cantwell/Collins CLEAR Act, had little effect except to sap momentum from the actual bill by turning its supporters against one another. Oh, and give concern trolls like Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) places to hide.

2. The climate bill failed for primarily structural rather than policy-related reasons. The antidemocratic 60-vote supermajority requirement in the Senate, the Republican strategy of total obstruction, and the crappy economy together basically doomed the bill. The idea that pushing a different form of carbon pricing would have made the difference is fantastical. Any policy that threatened status quo energy interests—nay, any policy at all that came from Democrats—would face the same nihilistic obstruction from Republicans and a handful of coal-state Dems. The numbers just don't add up to 60 on this issue.

3. Quasi-religious debates over how to penalize carbon (C&T; no, F&D; no, EPA!) eclipsed discussion of how to support clean energy. There was never sufficient support rallied around the policies that would drive adoption of renewables and efficiency—"the energy stuff." Those policies are more popular with the public and have more bipartisan support, but they were relegated to the role of "complementary" while all attention focused on the carbon price (read: jobkillingenergytax), which was the least popular policy in the bill.

Thus, when cap-and-trade went down, the renewable energy standard went with it.

4. CapFee-and-dividend is unlikely to spark a mass movement that will obviate the need to strike deals with energy incumbents. C&D proponents argue for something like the following: advance an ambitious policy, unsullied by compromises and side deals with special interest groups, commensurate with the scale of the problem; you lose the support of utilities and oil companies and ag groups and financial institutions and 95 percent of the lobbying muscle on Capitol Hill, but it won't matter, because you'll get The People. The masses will rally around the alternative policy because it's so logical. It just makes sense! Then we'll have a movement like the civil rights movement and bring down The Man.

I don't see it. Average citizens know almost nothing about politics and even less about policy; they don't care very deeply about climate change; they are highly cynical and suspicious of government and policy elites; the mechanisms that served to drive public discontent on civil rights (and other '60s victories) are not available to climate campaigners due to the nature of the issue -- the harms are mostly far away in time and space and the costs are immediate. And we're not just talking about persuading "the people" to get active, we're talking about creating a credible electoral threat in Nebraska and West Virginia. They're receptive to policy arguments from left intellectuals there, right?

If there is movement among The People on climate change, it will almost certainly come from something exogenous to the U.S. federal policy debate.

5. I, David Roberts, am, for the most part, policy agnostic. I have no deep philosophical attachment to cap-and-trade. The barriers to taking action on climate are so high that getting anything passed is a miracle. If a refunded carbon tax, fee-and-dividend, cap-and-invest, massive investment strategy, carbon wing-dang-doodle, or whatever else could pass, fine! I'd support them. If it's cap-and-trade, fine. If it's EPA and a patchwork of subsidies and regulations, fine. The differences among these policy alternatives are less significant in the near term than the imperative to get f'ing moving. Once we're moving, lots of stuff will shake itself out and our choices will be greatly clarified.

Of course I have my own policy preferences. If I could design my own pony it would look vastly different from the bills I've spent the past two years defending. But you can't just bypass power politics on the strength of an argument. Some folks have put so much personal investment in policy disputes that they end up thinking the defeat of competing policies is a "win" for the environment. No. Failure to act is a disaster, period.

6a. Cap-and-trade is a messaging and organizing disaster. On this, I think, almost everyone agrees. Green groups got all jazzed at the bipartisan potential of cap-and-trade after the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments and they made a classic technocrat's mistake: they put mechanisms at the heart of the message. The American electorate does not understand or care about policy mechanisms. They don't particularly care how greenhouse gases are reduced. They don't even care about greenhouse gases at all! They care about their jobs, their families, and their identities. Until climate action is discussed in ways that resonate with those concerns, it won't seriously engage the public.

6b. A shift in messaging does not (necessarily) require a shift in policy. These are the days of post-truth politics. The people battling climate action are not doing so on the basis of reasoned policy objections. They are acting out of fear and tribalism. As the (d)evolution of the bill over the last two years should demonstrate, policy compromises do not yield any reduction in the hysteria of opponents' rhetoric. Tea Party protesters aren't interested in whether carbon fees are rebated to taxpayers directly or through local distribution companies. They just don't want socialism on their energy.

If policy compromises have no effect on the political battle, then greens should pick whichever policies will work and think about the political battle as something separate, to be fought with its own strategies and weapons. Neither policy compromise nor reasoned argumentation—God bless the many folks who strive so valiantly to do those well -- is the only or even the most powerful such strategy.

Of course, all this leaves unanswered the question that animates Komanoff's post in the first place: What is the best strategy? What's the best way forward for climate campaigners? It can't be doing the same thing over again, can it? I'm sure we'll all be talking about that quite a bit in the months to come, but I'll leave it here for now.

This post was produced by Grist as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

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Birthright Citizenship: History Defies GOP Reasoning

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 2:06 PM PDT

All the talk from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz), and even John McCain about changing the 14th Amendment got me thinking about history. Arizona state senator Russell Pearce has said that, "When it was ratified in 1868, the amendment had to do with African-Americans; it had nothing to do with aliens." Sen. Pearce is in need of a history lesson because as Media Matters points out, the writers of the 14th DID think about immigrants, not just former slaves, when they crafted it.

Back in 1868, there wasn't the distinction between legal/illegal that we have now—we pretty much let almost everyone in until the late 1800s—but there was debate about the possible misuse of the law by immigrants. As one Pennsylvania senator at the time said, "[I]s it proposed that the people of California are to remain quiescent while they are overrun by a flood of immigration of the Mongol race? Are they to be immigrated out of house and home by Chinese?" A California senator countered the gentleman from Pennsylvania with: "We are entirely ready to accept the provision proposed in this [14th] constitutional amendment, that the children born here of Mongolian parents shall be declared by the Constitution of the United States to be entitled to civil rights and to equal protection before the law with with others." 

Replace "Chinese" and "Mongolian" with "Mexican" in those statements and the xenophobia starts to sound familiar. In fact, I turned up this little gem while browsing the history of anti-Irish discrimination. When you substitute the tea party for the Know Nothings, and Mexicans and Latinos for the Irish, and Phoenix for Boston, it still sounds pretty accurate:

The city of Phoenix was an established home of anti-immigrant feelings. This can be largely accredited to the large numbers of Mexican and Latino immigrants that made their home in that city. By 2000, it was estimated that a fifth of Phoenix’s population was foreign-born Latinos... This caused a great deal of fear because people were afraid they would be overrun by immigrants and they allowed political powers to be bred from it. The Tea Party rose to prominence at the zenith of Phoenix’s anti-immigrant feelings in the 2000s and 2010s. The party was opposed to foreign immigration, especially Mexicans, and believed that “Americans must rule America" ...Once in power, the party passed a series of laws aimed specifically at the Latino immigrant population of Arizona... The Tea Party's popularity was lost as easily as it was gained when the party’s candidate was defeated in the presidential election, signaling the end of its four year reign over American politics.

"12th and Delaware" Shows Where Abortion War is Really Waged

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 1:30 PM PDT

The new documentary 12th and Delaware, which premiered last night on HBO, presents a fly-on-the wall view inside two organizations in Fort Pierce, Florida, that cater to pregnant women. Though across the street from one another, in political terms the offices might as well be on separate planets; the Woman's World clinic offers abortions, and the anti-abortion Pregnancy Care Center goes to great lengths to goad women out of them.

Directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, who also created Jesus Camp, plant their film right in the middle of an issue that may be on the minds of politicians everywhere, but is not always an easy topic to broach in conversation."It's just a headache," Grady admits, referring to the film's subject matter. Even though 12th and Delaware cozies up to controversy, "in our opinion it's been hard to get media coverage for the film," remarks Grady, who explains that they had trouble getting traction in the TV review world.

Reid Punts Spill Bill to September

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 1:11 PM PDT

It looks like we won't even get to see some nasty partisan bickering on the floor of the Senate over the spill bill on Wednesday. Today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated that he won't bring the package up for a vote before senators head home this week.

At a press conference Tuesday, Reid told reporters he would not bring the bill up for a procedural vote tomorrow. He blamed Republicans for the delay, calling it "a sad day when you can’t find a handful of Republicans to support a bill" dealing with the Gulf oil disaster. "We had planned a vote tomorrow on our energy plan," Reid said. "But it’s clear that Republicans remain determined to stand in the way of everything."

But Republicans were also quick to point out that his own party wasn't lined up behind the bill. "The truth is Republicans offered a better alternative that was attracting Democratic support, so the majority leader pulled his bill rather than be embarrassed by a vote in favor of the Republican bill," said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, in an email to reporters.

"You can't blame Republicans when you refuse to even have a vote," Dillon continued.

Reid said "several key Republicans have said they need more time to consider our bill and its merits," and that the deal would give them that time. The measure is expected to be brought up again in September.

The Filibuster Is Giving Enviros Unwarranted Self-Esteem Issues

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 1:06 PM PDT

In the US Senate, it requires 60 votes out of 100 to do anything—to proceed to debate, to pass a bill, to amend a bill, to confirm a political appointee or a judge—anything. This is not what the Founding Fathers envisioned and it's not in the Constitution; it's a result of unprincipled abuse of informal practices by an increasingly nihilistic Republican Party.

The dysfunctional state of the Senate has damaging consequences that extend into virtually every corner of American politics. There's just one in particular I want to focus on today: It gives progressives a complex!

Take environmentalists. Just last week, the climate bill, into which they'd poured countless hours of effort, lobbying, campaigning, arguing, and advocating, died an unceremonious death. Not surprisingly, this set off a round of self-recrimination and mutual recrimination. "Why did we fail?" they cried in anguish. Was it the messaging? Too much climate, not enough jobs? The reverse? Was the strategy too focused on Congress and not enough on the grassroots? Too many compromises? Too few? Could Obama have saved it? And on and on.

But step back for a moment and think about it. Climate and clean energy are incredibly difficult issues for any number of reasons. Yet environmentalists pulled together a huge coalition of businesses, religious groups, military groups, unions, and social justice groups. They got a majority of U.S. citizens on their side, as polls repeatedly showed. And—here's the kicker—on the back of all that work, they got a majority of legislators in both houses of Congress on their side.

In a sane world—and in other developed democracies—that's what success looks like. Environmentalists did what they were supposed to do, and they did it well! They should be proud of themselves. It's not their fault Republicans are abusing idiosyncratic features of Senate governance to make reform prohibitively difficult.

The fact is, on a consequential, far-reaching, forward-looking, regionally charged set of issues like climate and energy, getting 60 percent of the country on your side is difficult enough. But getting 60 votes in the already-unrepresentative Senate is just an absurdly high bar. Theoretically, 40 senators representing under 10 percent of the population can block the will of the other 90 percent!

At least for the time being, it seems unlikely any combination of messaging, mobilizing, and lobbying can put a substantive climate bill over the top in the Senate. But that's just because the Senate is broken.

This post was produced by Grist as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Chart of the Day: The Economy Still Sucks

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 11:34 AM PDT

Here's the latest from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. It shows the number of people who have experienced various kinds of economic distress over the past year. In their latest poll, 44% have seen reduced wages, 41% have lost their job, 28% have lost their health insurance, and 22% have fallen behind on their mortgages. Every single one of these numbers is up since the beginning of the year.

And the political result? About what you'd expect: a year ago people trusted Democrats over Republicans by 14 points to manage the economy and by 9 points to manage the deficit. Today they trust Republicans by 13 points and 18 points respectively. I'm still willing to go out on a limb and say that Democrats will retain control of the House in November, but polls like this don't do anything for my confidence.

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Barring Citizenship To Children

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 11:31 AM PDT

Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) jumped on the GOP's anti-immigrant bandwagon and called for a hearing to repeal a portion of the 14th Amendment, The Hill reports. The part of the 1868 amendment McConnell and a slew of other conservatives—Senate Minority Whip John Kyl (R-Ariz.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), state Sen. Russell Pearce (R-Ariz.), Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), and the 93 House co-sponsors of a bill to end birthright citizenship—want to examine grants US citizenship to any children born in the US, even if their parents are undocumented immigrants. Jezebel reports on the sexist, xenophobic rhetoric spouted by Graham and his ilk to defend changing this immigration policy. But in the midst of this latest incarnation of anti-immigrant sentiment, let's take a look at a small rundown via SEIU of some prominent US citizens who happen to be the children of undocumented immigrants and who incidentally wouldn’t be citizens if McConnell, Kyl, and other politicians have their way.

NASA Astronaut Jose Hernandez "was born in California to parents who entered the U.S. illegally in 1957, working as field hands and eventually acquiring permanent residence," according to the Center on Immigration Studies. A flight engineer on the Space Shuttle Discovery, Hernandez's work in the early '90s led to the development of the first digital mammography imaging system, a tool used to detect breast cancer.

In 2007, Pete Domenici, the former Republican Senator of New Mexico, took to the Senate floor to recall the day in 1943 when his mother was arrested by US agents for being an undocumented immigrant. “By evening, my poor mother was released because she had a good lawyer. A lot of people don't have that, and we know what happens to them under our laws.”  From the New York Times

Mr. Domenici said he decided to tell his story when the hostile rhetoric about illegal immigrants started to boil. He said he wanted to remind his fellow Republicans that the sons and daughters of this century's illegal immigrants could end up in the Senate one day, too. "I wasn't trying to impress anybody," he said of his story. "I think it just puts a little heart and a little soul into this."

Domenici went on to serve as senator for 36 years.

Can Anwar al-Awlaki Sue to Get Off Obama's Hit List?

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 11:12 AM PDT

[Update, August 4: The Treasury Department plans to grant the ACLU and CCR the license they need to sue on Anwar al-Awlaki's behalf, Politico's Josh Gerstein reports. The rights organizations hadn't received anything by midday, they told Mother Jones on Wednesday. | Update 2, 5:21 p.m. August 4: The rights groups have their license, according to a statement they just released.]

Can accused terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki take the US government to court to prevent the Obama administration from assassinating him? He's a US citizen, so theoretically he can sue to protect his constitutional rights. But up until now an obscure anti-terror law has prevented al-Awlaki from obtaining American representation—even though two human rights group are prepared to to sue on his behalf to stop the government from killing him.

In February, Dennis Blair, then the nation's top intelligence official (he resigned in May), admitted that the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) maintains a list of US citizens it is trying to capture or kill. So far, only one person has been identified as potentially on the capture/kill list: al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim cleric who reportedly had ties to both the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber. Al-Awlaki is believed to be at large in Yemen, where he could potentially be killed by a US strike any day.

But like some other Islamic radicals, al-Awlaki has spent time in the US. He was born in New Mexico, attended Colorado State, and spent years leading Islamic congregations in Colorado and Virginia. And despite the government's accusations, al-Awlaki's father, Nasser, has proclaimed his son's innocence to CNN, saying his son is an "all-American boy" who has been "wrongly accused." Al-Awlaki is "not Osama bin Laden," his father says, arguing that the government wants "to make something out of him that he's not." On February 2, CNN reported that Nasser al-Awlaki had written to President Barack Obama urging the White House to reconsider its alleged plans to assassinate his son. "I plead again to you that you respect the American law," he wrote. "If Anwar ever did anything wrong he should be prosecuted according to the principles of American law." 

That's presumably why Nasser al-Awlaki retained Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU to file suit on his son's behalf.

But just ten days after the groups agreed to work with Nasser al-Awlaki, the Treasury Department put Anwar al-Awlaki on a list of "specially designated global terrorists," which made it a crime to represent him without a special license from the Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). Unable to proceed with the case, the rights groups put in an urgent request (PDF) for a license, but all they've heard back from the Treasury is that their application was received. The ACLU and CCR were in "third or fourth gear several weeks ago," moving towards suing on Awlaki's behalf, Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director, told reporters Tuesday on a conference call. But in the wake of the Treasury's designation, they're back in "neutral," he said. So today the groups sued to force the Treasury grant a license. Now, in effect, the two groups are suing the government for permission to sue the government.

America's New, Peaceful Future?

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 10:52 AM PDT

Matt Steinglass is surprisingly optimistic that we're about to enter a new, more reticent age of American power projection:

There haven't been many examples lately of people learning from their mistakes, but the invasion of Iraq appears to be a mistake from which some lessons have been learned. It's difficult to imagine America returning to fantasies of easy conquest and democracy-building anytime in the next few decades, anywhere in the world. Summing up the mood, Joe Klein calls the invasion a "national disaster", and calls for new criteria for the use of American military force that are actually rather old criteria: "We should never go to war unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack. Never. And never again."

I would very much like to believe this. But I really don't. We left Vietnam in 1975 and were supposedly so scarred that we'd never do anything like that again in any of our lifetimes. Your definition of "like that" might be different from mine, but a mere five years later we dipped our toe into Afghanistan and then, over the next 30 years, intervened militarily in Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan 2.0, and Iraq 2.0. In other words, once every three or four years, which is about as frequently as we did this kind of thing before Vietnam. Some scarring, eh?

Right now it looks like we've learned a lesson because, aside from a bit of chest beating from frustrated neocons over Iran, no one's banging the war drums. But no one was banging the war drums in 1976, either, which is why it looked like maybe we were going to enter a new era back then too. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and suddenly everything changed. So let's not declare a victory for common sense in foreign policy just yet. I'll believe things have changed when something actually happens overseas, a president tries to build support for intervention, and Congress and the public—including Joe Klein and me—balk. That will mean things have changed.

In the meantime, my friend Marc Danziger, whose son is in Afghanistan, is full of contempt for the way the Pentagon wages war ("It's like we turned the military over to the DMV") and believes that our big problem there is that "We have no strategic objective." Well, one man's strategic objective is another man's blather, but the fact is that President Obama has clearly articulated what he wants to accomplish:

I set a goal that was narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies, and pledged to better coordinate our military and civilian efforts....We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.

Now, maybe you don't like this objective. Maybe you think it needs to fit into a grander global plan of some kind. I don't, especially, but it's a perfectly legitimate view. Still, even if we had a different global plan than we do now, I don't think it would change what we want to accomplish in Afghanistan and it wouldn't change the difficulty of accomplishing it. This kind of counterinsurgency campaign is just really hard, and hardly anyone ever succeeds at it. Our current rules of engagement, which are frustrating for everyone, nonetheless seem to be about as effective as they can be. A year from now, if they're still not working, even with a huge increase in troops and an obviously highly competent officer like David Petraeus in charge, it's hard to believe that anything else would work either. The Pentagon's idea of how to wage war might or might not be as good as it could be, but failing to do the impossible is hardly evidence of it. It's primarily evidence that we've taken on an intractable task.

And we'll probably do it again. Just give us a few years to regroup and a plausible sounding enemy somewhere overseas. I'm pretty sure we'll hop right back on that horse.

Spill Bill Duel, Nobody Wins

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 10:04 AM PDT

The clock is running down for the Senate to pass its oil-spill-and-energy package before the August recess. The House passed their bill on Friday, but the Senate has been caught up in bickering over legislation to address what is by far the worst oil spill in US history. It seems very likely that the Senate won't pass even this much-scaled back version of the legislation.

Senate Democrats have a package that includes spill-response measures with some energy provisions. Senate Republicans have offered their own suite of measures, which includes lifting the moratorium on new deepwater drilling.

The biggest flash point is the liability cap for oil spills, which is currently set at just $75 million. The Democrats' bill would eliminate it entirely. Republicans support raising it, but not too much; their bill give the administration prerogative to adjust the limit in light of specific incidents. The liability cap is also an issue for moderate Democrats, who have been working on a compromise package that likely to be ready in time for consideration this week.

Both the Republican and Democratic bills will get a procedural vote on Wednesday, though neither is expected to pass. In all likelihood, the Senate will adjourn this week with nothing accomplished on the subject.

But that doesn't mean both sides will go home empty handed; both will use the issue to bash the other party heading into the November elections. Robert Dillon, spokesman for Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, has already given us a taste of what's to come. Here's his email blast to reporters today:

We've gone from the majority leader scheduling two weeks to do energy legislation to one week to two days to one day to a couple of hours—for a process that can take months to do properly... This is further evidence that the majority leader does not expect the energy bill to move forward and that this is simply an exercise in political messaging. It also calls into question who really wrote the bill introduced by Majority Leader Reid.

He continues:

Instead of turning a tragic disaster into a messaging strategy, the majority leader should be focusing on passing a bill to help restore balance to the Gulf and the offshore drilling industry. He, however, has chosen to once again play partisan games and not allow a full debate and open amendment process on either of the proposed bills.

Just a taste of the partisan back and forth we can expect on the floor tomorrow as senators manage to do absolutely nothing meaningful on the Gulf disaster before checking out for the month. Just another day in the most august elected body in our land!