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Climate Policy in the Biden Era: Divided They Are

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Joel Stronberg's picture
President, The JBS Group

Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney with over 40 years of experience in federal and state energy, environmental and sustainability issues. He is the founder and principal of The JBS...

  • Member since 2018
  • 242 items added with 527,143 views
  • Dec 3, 2020

Defund the police? Defund my butt. I’m a proud West Virginia Democrat.

We do not have some crazy socialist agenda. 

                                                             Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV)


President-Elect Biden ran as a unifier in a time of deep division. His job as president has been made all the more difficult by voters having denied the Democrats control of Congress.

The last president who entered his first-term without his party in control of Congress was George H. W. Bush in 1989. The last Democrat who suffered the same fate was Grover Cleveland in 1885. Same party control of Congress is no guarantee of smooth sailing for a president—divisions within parties are common and frequently acted upon.

Midterm elections are historically harmful to a sitting president. According to Politifact, a sitting president’s party has on average lost 32 House seats and more than two Senate seats in midterm elections since 1862. The only presidents to beat the odds were Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, Bill Clinton in 1998, and George W. Bush in 2002.

Should Biden become the first president since George H.  W. Bush to enter office without the Senate under his party’s control, the task of confirming his cabinet will turn into a partisan minefield. As the majority, Republicans would have veto power over his administration’s staffing. It’s been reported that the Republicans are intent on putting their brand on the Biden administration.

Democratic control of the Senate is still possible. It depends upon the outcome of the runoff elections in Georgia on January 5, 2021. At the moment, Democrats face long odds in winning both contests.

If Biden is to accomplish more than rescinding Trump’s damaging environmental deregulation orders and rebuilding the federal workforce, he’ll need support from multiple quarters. Those include the moderates and progressives in his own party and the occasional cooperation of some number of Republicans—both to backstop the loss of any Democratic votes and for cloture of filibusters that could prevent the passage of legislation. 

Most critical of all is the backing of voters for any supporting member of Congress, whatever their party. If the nation is ever to respond to climate change in a manner equal to the magnitude of the threat, it must be done with bipartisan legislation.

In these topsy-turvy times, patterns are being broken. Biden and the Democrats might escape history in 2022 and add to their numbers on Capitol Hill. Odds are, however, that newly-minted president entering office with a hand tied behind his back and looming Congressional losses ahead of him will find himself and his party at a significant disadvantage in terms of what they can realistically accomplish--politically.

Executive orders won’t win this war. One president issuing directives that the next can simply dismiss gets the nation no closer to a solution nor even to the state of preparedness needed to make communities resilient to the coming storms, droughts, and other consequences of a warming planet.

This is the third article in an occasional series on the Biden transition. Throughout the series, I will be describing for readers the political environment in which the new administration must operate a sort of you can’t know the players without a program discussion.

Following is a discussion on the state of Senate affairs and the divides President Biden and Vice President Harris will need to bridge to implement their climate defense policy platform. The House is currently in the process of making committee assignments and will be the subject of a later discussion.

We’ll have a czar for that!

The President-Elect’s appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry as the special presidential envoy for climate is an early and unambiguous indication of his seriousness to address the problem throughout his term in office.

Kerry has a long and distinguished public service record and a deep and abiding commitment to protecting Earth’s environment. He and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) co-chaired the Biden-Sanders’s unity climate task force that crafted the President-Elect’s $2 trillion climate policy.

Kerry’s appointment was well-received by progressive groups like the Justice Democrats. The group’s executive director, Alexandra Rojas, released a statement of support:

We are encouraged by Joe Biden making one of his first major appointments John Kerry as Climate Czar, as it demonstrates the urgency of taking bold, global action on the climate crisis.

What Rojas had to say also included a message—quite possibly a warning:

But, America also needs a domestically-focused Climate Czar who directly reports to the President and will oversee an Office of Climate Mobilization agreed to in the Biden-Sanders task forces.

It’s time to use the full force of the federal government to create millions of jobs, invest in our communities, and transition to 100% clean and renewable energy to usher in the economy of the future. (emphasis added)

The appointment of a domestic climate czar and creating an Office of Climate Mobilization is within a president’s power. It can likely be done without the Senate’s advice or consent.  

It is unclear whether Biden believes creating a new executive staff office would be the preferred route. Other avenues could be followed.

For example, the supernumerary function could be made part of the duties of the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), a position within the Environmental Protection Agency USEPA), or even as part of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Often called the most important office, no one has ever heard of an administration’s regulatory actions—even Trump’s—must pass through OIRA’s door.

There are both positives and negatives associated with the various options. It will be up to the Biden administration to pick its fights carefully. A Republican Senate is going to throw obstacles in the way. Anticipating them and, where possible, finding ways to avoid them should be Rules 1 and 2 of the incoming Biden administration.

The advice is the same, should there be a Democratic Senate majority. Conservative Blue Dog Democrats from coal states, e.g., Joe Manchin, are as defensive about aggressive climate policy as many of their Republican colleagues.  

Senate musical chairs

I’ve written before that there’s a troop of Senate Republicans that the administration and the climate activist community will have to go through to implement the Biden climate plan. It’s a formidable bunch and includes Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Tom Cotton (R-AR).

Not all Republicans in the Senate are as doctrinaire as this particular Senate Squad or out to “stick it” to the incoming Democratic administration because it will look good on their resumes in their runs for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

When the 117th Congress is gaveled to order, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) will not be chairing the is looing to chair of Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The Committee’s current ranking member is Tom Udall (D-NM) is retiring. Possible successors would be Maria Cantwell (D-WA) or John Tester (D-MT).

Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) wants to be Murkowski’s successor. Notwithstanding her being a Republican representing a fossil fuel state, the Senator has worked diligently to put together inclusive bipartisan energy legislation for a very long time. However, it is not to say that clean energy and environmental activists haven’t had occasions to oppose legislation Murkowski and some of her frequent Democratic partners, e.g., Joe Manchin (D-WV) have put together. Whether friend or foe, the Senator deserves credit for her readiness to listen and willingness to work across the aisle.

Barrasso is a coal-state senator, and it should be expected he’ll do what he can to keep the coal mines operating. Like Murkowski, Barrasso has a history of bipartisanship. He was a sharp critic of Obama’s climate policies and can be expected to oppose environmental regulation and rules he believes give solar and wind a competitive advantage or, in the alternative, place coal at a disadvantage.

Should Barrasso become the Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair, he will support carbon capture and sequestration research (CCS). The Wyoming senator is the principal sponsor of the USE IT ACT (S.383) that would establish a competitive prize program for CCS technologies and support research relating to carbon dioxide utilization.

Barrasso also sponsored the American Conservation Enhancement Act. The legislation is a package of bills benefiting fish and wildlife conservation throughout the nation. West Virginia Senator Shelly Moor Capito (R-WV) would likely succeed Barrasso on the Environment and Public Works Committee as either its chair or ranking member. Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), the current ranking member on the Committee, would become its chair in the event of a Democratic victory. Carper has a close relationship with Biden.

As it stands now, the new Senate looks to remain in Republican hands. The path to the majority for the Democrats runs through Georgia. Should Democratic Senate candidates Warnock and Ossoff win their respective contests, there would be a 50/50 split in the new Senate—giving Vice President Harris the tie-breaking vote. It would give the Democrats effective control—assuming all their members follow their leader—Senator Schumer (D-NY), who would become the new Majority Leader.

All eyes are on the January 5th election, with long odds given to a Democratic sweep. From Mother Earth’s perspective, a 50/50 split would be better than the alternative. Whatever the outcome of the Georgia elections, however, the key Senate committees of Energy and Natural Resources and Environment and Public Works will be heavily influenced by coal-state senators.

Whatever happens in Georgia, the President-Elect will have trouble getting the support he would need to put his $2 trillion climate action plan into practice. Even before any legislation is considered, Biden will likely encounter pushback to some of the nominees he’ll put forth to lead federal agencies and programs. Joining the Republicans will be Blue Dog Democrats like Manchin.

The West Virginia Democrat has already made it clear that his Democratic Party doesn’t have some crazy socialist agenda like the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all. (emphasis added) It’s an interesting turn of phrase and one that closely tracks what McConnell has had to say about these same two proposals:

Are we going to turn this into a socialist country? Don’t assume it cannot happen. If I’m still the majority leader of the Senate, think of me as the Grim Reaper. None of that stuff is going to pass. None of it.

There are Republican Senators who I would call temperate, i.e., not quite moderate, who the President-Elect and Vice President-Elect will regularly reach out to for support on nominations and climate legislation. They are easily identified by their having already recognized Biden as the President-Elect and being twitterfied for it by President Trump. Senators Collins (R-ME), Murkowski, Romney (R-UT), and Sasse (R-NE).

There’s no question a Democratic sweep in the Georgia runoff elections would be better both for the Biden administration and the nation’s environment than a Senate under the thumb of Mitch McConnell. How much better time will tell.

One of the great strengths of the incoming administration is the time Biden and Harris have served in the US Senate. They’ve developed meaningful relationships on both sides of the aisle. Experience counts for something. In this particular case, it’s going to count for quite a lot.

Look for the next article A House Divided that will discuss the divisions within and between the parties in the lower chamber.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 4, 2020

Should Democratic Senate candidates Warnock and Ossoff win their respective contests, there would be a 50/50 split in the new Senate—giving Vice President Harris the tie-breaking vote. It would give the Democrats effective control—assuming all their members follow their leader—Senator Schumer (D-NY), who would become the new Majority Leader.

As you point out, this 50/50 split would only embolden Manchin to use his leverage and protect fossil fuel interests more. The next four years will certainly come with a more positive outlook for U.S. climate policy than the last four, but the slim margins (for at least the first half of these next four years) mean any green revolution on a federal level is still a bit further away. 

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Thank Joel for the Post!
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