Climate Politics: The View from Washington (27th Nov.)


Original appeared at Civil Notion

Climate Politics: The View from Washington (27th Nov.)

Joel Stronberg, Esq.
By Joel Stronberg, Esq. and 11/27/23

Legislation is not enacted in a vacuum. Successful advocacy strategies begin with understanding the political context in which proposed climate-related policies are to be debated and acted upon.

The Congressional Cans Festival kicked off once again in Washington with the pre-Thanksgiving holiday passage of the Continuing Resolution (CR) that extends funding for federal agencies through the beginning of the new calendar year at FY2023 levels.

The legislative action does not settle the matter of FY 2024 appropriations. It merely delays budgeting decisions until early next year—as per the terms of the CR.

Passage of the CR by the House was the first big test of House Speaker Johnson’s reign over the lower chamber. The new speaker proposed a novel, albeit superficial, solution for keeping the lights on in government offices for another few months. Johnson’s speakership, as well as the operation of the federal government, will be on the line when the bills come due again.

The new speaker proposed, and both chambers accepted, a two-step CR. The first tranche continues funding for military construction, the Departments of Veteran Affairs, Agriculture, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and energy and water programs until January 19, 2024. Funding for the Department of Defense and many non-defense programs will lapse on February 2nd as dictated by the CR.

We are not going to have a massive omnibus spending bill right before Christmas. That is a gift to the American people. Because that is no way to legislate. It is not good stewardship.House Speaker Mike Johnson

Omnibus resolutions have been the bane of far-right legislators since the turn of the century. Johnson and other ultra-right members of the Republican House conference believe omnibus packages put them at a disadvantage in their efforts to cull woke-related programs and policies out of the federal budget. The speaker has promised no more omnibus appropriations bills. It’s a promise he’ll have trouble keeping.

Continuing resolutions, by their nature, maintain the status quo. Far-right (MAGA) Republicans want to tank tradition and radically reduce federal discretionary spending on a host of issues, from healthcare to workplace safety, benefits for poor and at-risk communities of all colors, and scientific research. At or near the top of their target list of woke-related policies is anything related to the causes and consequences of Earth’s warming and transitioning the nation from fossil fuels to clean energy systems like wind and solar.

Initially panned by President Biden and called "goofy" by Senate Majority Leader Schumer (D-NY), the speaker's scheme quickly became the preferred solution of bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate.

Having just survived three weeks of Republican infighting, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were wearied by all the drama. They sought respite—if only momentary—over actual agreements on funding. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jefferies (D-NY) explained the willingness of the Democrats to support the speaker’s resolution:

No spending cuts, no right-wing extreme policy changes, no government shutdown, no votes tomorrow. Happy Thanksgiving.

Passage of the Johnson CR required the votes of Democrats and Republicans. The final House vote was 336 yeas (209 DEM and 127 GOP), 95 nays (93 GOP and 2 DEM), and three not voting. The Senate passed the stop-gap measure by a vote of 87 to 11 (10 GOP and 1 DEM).

What pleased the Democrats predictably had the opposite effect on far-right Republicans. They considered Johnson’s resolution and willingness to work across the aisle as evidence of disloyalty to the MAGA/America First agenda and the former president with whom they all stand.

The CR does not include the $106 billion supplemental appropriation Biden has requested to aid Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza (humanitarian). Additional funds for border security and immigration are also included in the request.

Notwithstanding its novelty, Johnson’s CR hardly differs from the one McCarthy negotiated with President Biden. In a fairer world, House hard-liners like Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Chip Roy (R-TX), and Nancy Mace (R-SC) should now be demanding Johnson to vacate the speaker’s chair for precisely the same reasons they “de-gaveled” McCarthy, i.e., the maintenance of existing funding levels and the passage of legislation with Democratic votes.

Although the uber-conservative House Freedom Caucus (HFC) formally opposed the Johnson resolution, its members were unwilling to go hunting for another speaker’s head so soon after the three-week debacle following McCarthy’s ousting. By any measure, a repeat of the leadership drama would call into question the ability of Republicans to govern.

A roll of the rune stones suggests the passage of Johnson’s resolution could yet prove a pyrrhic victory for Johnson. The House’s far-right faction wasted no time reminding the speaker—in the strongest terms—that they’re prepared to shut down the government should the appropriation bills in January and February not substantially reduce the reach and resources of federal agencies.

The far-right’s reminder came in the form of a refusal to let the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill be brought to the House floor for a vote. Although the blockage was procedural, the opponents let it be known that a nine percent cut in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) funding wasn’t nearly enough. The same objection applies to other agency budgets, e.g., the Department of Energy’s non-fossil fuel programs and the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory schemes.

The MAGA contingent views the Bureau as a leading edge of Democratic efforts to “weaponize” government against Trump and his core supporters. The ubers also prevented a House vote on a bill forcing the administration to sanction any financial institutions allowing Iran access to $6 billion in assets for humanitarian purposes currently sitting in a Qatari bank.

Johnson committed the sins of his “fathers” when he proposed a clean continuing resolution to avert a government shutdown and secured its passage with the help of Democratic votes. Former Speakers Boehner, Ryan, and McCarthy tried the same approach, much to their chagrin.

The speaker’s dilemma is this. If he yields to the demands of the uber-right, then the odds of a government shutdown are very high because compromise—between the parties and within the ranks of the GOP—becomes nearly impossible.

At the same time, the odds of a far-right agenda being approved by the House are very low—even lower is the possibility of deep cuts making it through the Senate and signed into force by the president. So, what is the speaker to do?

Johnson will have to decide where his loyalties lie between now and when the appropriation bills come due in early 2024. His choices are these: democracy or Donald Trump?

This is the final battle. ... Either they win or we win.(D. Trump, March 2023)

Johnson is naïve to think there are any gray areas in the land of Trump or that he can maintain his arch-conservative standing with the Freedom Caucus and allied MAGA House conservatives. Following the vote on his resolution, the speaker went to great pains to explain the reality of the situation.

As reported by the Washington Post, Johnson stated:

I'm one of the arch-conservatives, okay? And I want to cut spending right now.… But when we have a three-vote majority — because we do right now — we don't have the votes to be able to advance that....

He continued. “We are not surrendering; we’re fighting. But you have to be wise about choosing the fights. You’ve got to fight fights that you can win.”

How wise Johnson’s choices have been since his being cloaked in the mantle of the speakership is a contentious matter within the Party of Trump. Experience strongly suggests he will not emerge from the GOP’s uncivil war with itself unscathed.

The speaker has initiated several actions that he hopes will maintain his arch-conservative bona fides as the speaker and keep the Freedom Caucus and the uber-right media off his back—if not entirely in his camp. He’s ordered the release of thousands of hours of Capitol security tapes, which the far-right will use to challenge the January 6th Committee’s findings and possibly call for the investigators to be investigated.  

Johnson also made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to meet with the former president. During his visit to the Mecca of the uber-right, the speaker reminded Republicans that he endorsed Trump “wholeheartedly for re-election in 2020 and traveled with his team as a campaign surrogate to help ensure his victory.” On the heels of that statement, Johnson endorsed Trump for president in 2024.

The Congress has its work cut out for it when it returns on November 28th and before it recesses again for the Christmas holiday on December 15th. Twelve appropriation bills will need to pass the House before going to a conference committee to reconcile the considerable differences between the versions passed by each chamber—if they are to meet the deadlines in the CR and avoid a government shutdown.

Outside of the twelve appropriation bills, there is the president’s $106 billion supplemental request for aid to Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, and border security. Although many on the far-right oppose continuing support for Ukraine, Johnson has indicated support at some level and with certain conditions. A change of heart that may be used against him by Trump and leading members of the Freedom Caucus.

In addition to the appropriation bills, Congress must address the renewal of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the warrantless wiretapping of foreign citizens, and the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. Both bills are facing heated partisan debate.

As reported by POLITICO, “House Republicans are closing in on a make-or-break moment in their drive to impeach Joe Biden.” Centrists and many establishment Republicans are leery of any impeachment efforts. They fear it will look like revenge for what the Democrats did to Trump—twice.

To date, there’s no evidence suggesting that Biden has done anything amounting to an impeachable offense. There are still a dozen witnesses to be questioned by the committee before any final decision is made in January. How Johnson handles impeachment matters will be looked to by Trump and the ubers as evidence of his loyalty to the cause.

Congress is also returning in the week that sees the beginning of the UN’s COP28 gathering in the UAE. Although Congress has no immediate involvement in the meeting, it will be used by Trump and others to lambast Biden for his having become a puppet of the progressives and support GOP efforts to eviscerate the clean energy and climate-related provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act.

If Johnson chooses compromise and democracy, then he’s going to need the support of Democrats to pass legislation—as well as to keep his speakership. The decision isn’t Johnson’s alone to make. In fact, it may not be his decision at all.

Moderate and establishment House Republicans unhappy with the Party of Lincoln turning into the Party of Trump vastly outnumber the MAGA contingent within their ranks. Working with Democrats, they’d be more than capable of conducting the people’s business as the authors of American democracy intended it. The big question, of course, is whether they’ll finally stand up and say enough is enough—reminding the ubers that governance is a team sport.

It was easy for Johnson to be part of the party-line when his decisions didn’t so directly influence outcomes. I don’t envy him his position. In addition to being the leader of the House, he’s now second in succession to the president. It’s bound to change a man. One hopes for the better.

Should the president and vice-president become unable to exercise their duties, the nation’s leadership falls onto his shoulders. Should such a catastrophe befall the nation I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump were to call Johnson and demand he pass the presidency over to him.

A flaw in ultra-right thinking is that the Democrats are going to be in any hurry to negotiate with Republicans over the differences in the bills. They didn’t the last time when Trump was president.

It’s well established that the party seen as responsible for government closings doesn’t perform well in elections. A fact borne out by the GOP’s own experience. With all the drama in the House these past few weeks and months, most voters will have very little trouble assigning blame for the continuing chaos in Capital City to the Party of Trump.

As a final note, I’ll remind readers of this new old adage.

Washington is where old cans never die—they just get kicked on down the road.