As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Compromise of the Art

Paul Krugman writes today about the watered-down climate bill, but more specifically the difficulty among the progressive movement to figure out the tipping points in the face of all the compromising and atom-splitting:

In a way, it was easy to take stands during the Bush years: the Bushies and their allies in Congress were so determined to move the nation in the wrong direction that one could, with a clear conscience, oppose all the administration’s initiatives.

Now, however, a somewhat uneasy coalition of progressives and centrists rules Washington, and staking out a position has become much trickier. Policy tends to move things in a desirable direction, yet to fall short of what you’d hoped to see. And the question becomes how many compromises, how much watering down, one is willing to accept.

We can apply this to a lot of legislation coming out of Washington, but Krugman specifically looks at the climate bill. We all knew that the initial Waxman-Markey bill would represent the leftward bound of the policy. Predictably, coal-state Dems reacted unfavorably, and sought concessions, the most important being the softening of both the cap on carbom emissions and the renewable energy standard, as well as the inclusion of emissions allowances to polluters, instead of selling off all allowances 100% at auction. Not only will this giveaway to polluters push more of the costs of implementation onto the poor and give a windfall to groups like coal plant executives, but it won't stop electricity producers from raising their prices even though that's the entire point of the allowances. What's more, this doesn't seem to be enough for Senate Democrats:

Another senior aide said Waxman’s “pragmatic approach … will be appreciated in the Senate” but cautioned that the deal is unlikely to fully satisfy Senate moderates who are looking to temper the bill even more.

“Rick Boucher does not equal Evan Bayh does not equal Debbie Stabenow,” the senior Senate Democratic aide said of the Democratic Senators from Indiana and Michigan, respectively. Bayh and Stabenow have expressed reservations about cap-and-trade provisions, which would cap emissions and allow industries to trade for pollution permits.

“There are a substantial number of moderate Democrats who are uneasy at best,” the knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide noted.

Basically, plenty of Democrats would rather see absolutely nothing pass.

Given all of that, as long as the cap is hard and cannot be gamed, this will drive down emissions, coupled with the new fuel economy standard for cars, not to mention all of the initiatives on energy efficiency and renewable standards in the bill). And if anyone can shepherd through a bill of this magnitude and make sure it doesn't get totally de-fanged, it's Henry Waxman. His policy style is to keep working on an idea and taking small victories until the full flower of the policy is realized. Obviously it's an open question whether Waxman-Markey will amount to enough of a victory to support.

And that's really the fault line in this debate. If you accept that voters care about climate change, and want to see real action, a light-as-a-feather bill could alienate the young voters who care about it the most, and frustrate those who see no way for Congress to deal with such an abstract yet devastating issue, especially given all the special interests seeking the destruction of the legislation (This, by the way, is why Republicans are backing a carbon tax, because they know it's politically impossible and an attempt to stop the main bill cold). Where is the tipping point, where do progressives draw the line? And since we really do have a short window for dealing with mitigating climate change until we're powerless to stop it, if the subsequent bill would fail to reach its intended goals, wouldn't it be used as a symbol of Democratic failure?

There are strategic issues in addition to policy issues at work here. It's hard to figure what's right.

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