Climate Politics: The View from Washington (9th Jan.)

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Original appeared at Civil Notion

Climate Politics: The View from Washington (9th Jan.)

Joel Stronberg, Esq.
By Joel Stronberg, Esq. and 01/09/24

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.

Overview

Congress is back from its holiday recess. Although it’s a new year, Capitol Hill politicians are facing many of the same old problems—beginning with efforts to avoid a partial or complete federal government shutdown.

Congress has eleven days before the first check comes due on the Continuing Resolution (CR) that’s currently keeping the government open. On January 19th, funding for 20 percent of the federal government, including the Departments of Energy and Interior, will run out. The remainder of the government can continue until February 2nd.

Over the weekend, Senate Majority Leader Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Johnson (R-LA) agreed to a top line number of around $1.66 trillion and the passage of needed appropriation legislation. In essence, it’s the same deal that former Speaker McCarthy (R-CA) and President Biden agreed to ahead of the 2024 fiscal year and as part of the debt-ceiling deal.

The agreement is a step forward but hardly a final or timely temporary solution. Although Democrats support the it, the uber-conservative House Freedom Caucus and other MAGA-aligned representatives are threatening to prevent it from being put into force because it fails to meet their demands—including significant cuts in discretionary spending, immigration reform, and language that erases any “woke-inspired” policies, e.g., federal support for abortions.

If Congress is to avoid the one percent across-the-board spending cut mandated by the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA) it will need to pass all 12 appropriation bills before February 2nd. According to the FRA, the spending cuts will  automatically “go into effect on May 1st unless Congress passes the full-year appropriations bills.” A new CR will trigger the cuts. To date, none of the bills have made it through Congress and onto the president’s desk.

Can the House pass four appropriation bills to meet the January due-by date and eight more by the beginning of February? Those are good question and, for the moment, most in Washington are dubious of Speaker Johnson’s ability to unite his Republican conference behind the agreement.

Johnson’s put himself in a really awkward position. Far-right House members are not wrong when they say their demands aren’t being met. For many Republicans and Democrats in Congress, it’s a good thing.

The far-right faction, from which Johnson sprung, has clearly stated that any goodwill they were willing to give the speaker was used up when they didn’t stand in the way of the current CR.

Truthfully, Johnson hasn’t gotten any significant concessions on appropriations from the Democrats. As “wins” for the conservative cause, the speaker points to $10 billion in cuts to the IRS and from a $6.1 billion COVID-era fund, claiming the number is $30 billion less than funding bills written by the Senate.

Johnson’s examples of conservative wins aren’t likely to be enough for the far-right. Representative Chip Roy (R-TX) believes the latest agreement is “even worse than we thought.” Harsher comments from Trump and MAGA-aligned House members are being made almost hourly.

I have to believe that the uber-right in the House is asking itself, “If not now, when?” Johnson is trying to appease Roy and other MAGA-aligned members with his support for the investigation into the impeachment of the president and sweeteners like those in his deal with Schumer. These are Trump’s forces—not Johnson’s. Whereas ousting yet another Republican speaker isn’t in the cards (anytime soon), disruption and chaos are.

Whether passing the 12 appropriations to avoid a shutdown and potential across-the-board cuts or reopening the government after it’s closed down, Johnson will need the help of Democrats. Acts that will further alienate him from House Freedom Caucus members and other Trump allies.

Implications for the climate community

Any substantial cuts in climate-related programs are unlikely to happen. The greatest risk for federal climate policies and programs will be found in the language of the legislation, as compared to the dollar numbers. Examples would include curtailing the Department of Energy’s loan guarantees for solar and battery manufacturers, stopping the buildout of the needed electric vehicle infrastructure, and preventing the use of federal funds to regulate power plant emissions.

There is also a risk to climate-related programs should the across-the-board cut be triggered by Congress’ failure to pass appropriation bills. Senator Patti Murray (D-WA), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, released the following estimated impacts should the cuts occur—they’re far more than a single percent would seem.

  • For defense programs, a date-change, full-year CR would mean $26.5 billion (3%) to $36.5 billion (4.1%) less than the amount agreed to under the Fiscal Responsibility Act—and even more when compared to the Senate Appropriations bills.
  • For domestic programs (excluding VA medical care), a date-change, full-year CR would mean as much as a 9.4% cut—or more than $70 billion in cuts to vital domestic programs that help families put food on the table, keep our communities safe, and keep our country running and competitive.

It’s critical to keep in mind that Trump has already made electric vehicles and wind turbines part of his “schtick,” as well as a desire to drill, drill, drill as a one-day dictator. Climate and clean energy will remain one of his targeted priorities throughout the 2024 campaign.

Finally

The Republican House majority is getting thinner, while the 18 GOP representatives who won in districts that voted for Biden are getting nervous. McCarthy has left the building having resigned at the end of December. His departure has lowered the Republican House majority to just three votes. A special election to fill the remainder of his term won’t happen until May. The Republican fabulist George Santos was kicked out of Congress earlier, and it’s being reported that Representative Bill Johnson (R-OH) is leaving to become president of Youngstown State University.

At some point, Johnson has to decide where his responsibilities lie—to party, person, or country. When he agreed to the current CR, he decided country. Having done it once, will he do it again—despite pressure from Trump? That’s the $1.6 trillion question.

In the meantime, buckle up; there’s turbulence ahead.

That’s it for this edition of the Climate Politics: The View from Washington.

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