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Climate Policy in the Biden Era: A Look Ahead to the Political Environment

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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...

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Climate politics has taken a 180-degree turn in favor of federal action thanks to the voters of Georgia. The Democrats’ surprising double win in the Peach State’s runoff elections has turned the US Senate from red to blue—or more accurately blue-ish.

With both the House and Senate in Democratic hands, it becomes possible for the incoming Biden administration and the Democrats in Congress to move quickly on a wide range of climate-related matters. Had the Senate remained in Republican control, Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) would have continued playing the Grim Reaper, making good on his vow to keep climate defense measures from ever landing on the Senate floor or the president’s desk.

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Rebuilding and repairing federal programs and regulatory schemes needed to combat climate change effectively are themselves daunting tasks. More daunting still is the resistance the Biden administration will encounter in its efforts to work with Congress to enact in 2021…legislation that would put the nation on an irreversible path to achieve economy-wide net-zero emissions no later than 2050.

The Democrats’ 2020 electoral hat trick does not give climate activists carte blanche in terms of policies and programs able to make it through Congress and onto President Biden for signature—even now with a slightly Democratic Senate.

Once Senators-elect Warnock and Ossoff are sworn in, the upper chamber will be evenly divided 50/50 with tie votes to be broken by the Vice President Harris. It assumes that the 50 Democrats will vote in lockstep with each other. As much as I would like to think that possible, decades in Washington have made me more realistic—often to my chagrin.

Blue Dog Senators like Joe Manchin (D-WV) cannot be expected to vote 100 percent of the time along the same lines as Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the new Majority Leader, is going to have exercise a strong hand to keep his caucus in-line.

Manchin has already exhibited his hesitancy to follow along. He was a “No” vote on the Democrats’ attempt to raise the second round of pandemic checks to $2000, rather than the $600 that passed. The Senator has four more years on his current term and he represents a solidly red state.  

I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if there are times when moderate Republican Senators like Collins (ME) or Romney (UT) or Murkowski (AK) cross the aisle in one direction as Manchin does the other.  It’s important to keep in mind that Vice President Harris can only vote in the event of a tie.

Speaker Pelosi has only a four vote majority in the House. Progressive and moderates will find themselves at odds over issues like climate change and healthcare. Biden, Pelosi, and House Majority Whip Clyburn (SC) are old school moderates, which means conflicts with the progressives are inevitable. The House too has its Blue Dogs.

Hanging over the House of Representatives, as always, is the prospect of having to run again in two years. Although a third of the Senate will be running in the midterms, all 435 members of the House will be—are already—back on the hustings and Biden hasn’t even taken the oath of office.

The midterms, as I’ll discuss in a moment, are going to be looked at not only by the Democrats. Republicans believe 2022 will be their time to strike to take back the House if not Congress. Although history is on their side, Donald Trump may have thrown spanner into the works. The Republican Party is pulling itself apart in the wake of the insurrection.

Everything the Biden administration and the 117th Congress will debate and decide takes place against a political backdrop. In the following paragraphs, I endeavor to provide readers with an appreciation of today’s politics.

Whatever else might happen, Democratic control of Congress and the White House means an end to the Trump-era assaults and guarantees open debate on Capitol Hill of critically needed responses to climate change. It also means something will get done.

Numbers can be deceiving—seeing red is not the same as being red.

Biden bested Clinton’s 2016 popular vote by over four million and bettered Trump’s 2020 total by nearly seven million. Notwithstanding such substantial differences, Biden’s Electoral College-count was identical to Trump’s 306 to 232.

The lesson here is one of geography. Where a presidential candidate wins is as critical to success as the number of votes received.

President-Elect Biden received seven million votes (51.4 percent) more than Trump. The actual difference between the two candidates, however, was 103,900 votes cast in three states. Had Trump taken from Biden 11,800 votes in Georgia, 10,457 in Arizona, and 81,660 in Pennsylvania, he would have won a total of 278 electoral votes and another four years in office.

The narrow margins of victory in the 2016 and 2020 presidential races should make Republicans and Democrats nervous about their presidential candidates’ staying power. Democrats, in particular, should be worried.

According to Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist,

the Electoral College has shifted from advantaging Democrats to disadvantaging Democrats. A Democratic candidate must now win the national popular vote by a much larger margin in order to assure a victory in the electoral vote.

The other oddity of Biden’s victory was his failure to increase the number of  Democrats in Congress. Known as the coattail effect, a successful first-term president traditionally brings with him a romp of representatives and senators of his own party into the winner’s circle.

Figure1 shows that Biden is coming into office besting only President Kennedy in having the weakest House of Representative coattails of any president since FDR in 1932.

Figure 2 reflects how Biden compares to other presidents elected during a time of crisis, e.g., economic depressions, recessions, and wars.

I would note that the pickup of the two Senate seats in Georgia had much to do with Trump’s crude and illegal tactics to get Georgia’s Republican Governor and Secretary of State to help him “find” 12,000 more votes. His denigration of the voting system and persistent belly-aching about how the national election was stolen from him kept Republican voters from turning out in the needed numbers.

It is not to take anything away from Senators-Elect Ossoff and Warnock’s extraordinary efforts, the multiple progressive groups with boots on the ground, or the donors of the $500 million that paid for advertising in the state. However, the 12,000 votes Biden beat Trump by, and the narrowness of the Senate victories hardly suggest that Georgia has become a reliably Democratic state.

Biden, Ossoff, and Warnock all ran as moderate Democrats. When it comes time to propose and vote on a federal climate defense plan, their moderateness will be in full view.

Time is of the essence

Under the best of circumstances doing all that’s necessary to put the nation inextricably on a path to achieve economy-wide net-zero emissions no later than the 2022 midterm elections promises to be a heavy lift—possibly too heavy. Note that I’m giving Biden and Congress an extra year compared to the President-Elect’s climate goal of 2021.

History is not on the side of a sitting president’s party in midterm elections. Since World War II, an incumbent president’s party has lost an average of 26 House seats and four Senate seats two years into their terms.

The Center for Politics at the University of Virginia believes the Democrats have the best chance of adding to their Senate and House numbers in the 2022 midterms. Thirty-three Senate and 435 House seats will be up for grabs in those elections.

Two years can be a lifetime in politics. Moreover, the 2022 midterms will be the first federal elections impacted by decennial reapportionment and redistricting based on the 2020 census. In many states, congressional districts are drawn by their legislatures. (Figure ?) According to Ballotpedia, 38 states—15 Democratic and 23 Republican—are ruled by a government trifecta.

A trifecta is when one political party holds the governorship and majorities in both chambers of the legislature. (Figure 3) The percent of Americans living in a Republican trifecta state is 42 percent, 37 percent are in a Democratic state, and 22 percent in a divided government state.

The 2020 census will bring about changes in the number of congressional districts in each state. New York appears fated to lose two House seats. Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois, and California all stand to lose one spot.

The total number of districts will remain the same. The loss of one state, therefore, is the gain for another. Texas looks to be the biggest winner gaining three seats. Florida looks to gain two seats, with North Carolina, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and Montana each gaining an additional House member.

Population moves are being impacted by various factors, including relocations for new jobs, the pandemic, cost of living, lifestyle, and climate change, e.g., forest fires. The pandemic has shown remote working is a viable alternative to an office for many in the workforce. 

New York City lost over 300,000 residents in 2020. Most aren’t expected to return. Many are moving to states like Tennessee, South Carolina, and Arkansas. It’s too early to tell whether northern Democrats are moving in the numbers required to change future election outcomes. However, I suspect it will just be a matter of time before out-migration from northern cities impacts the politics of receiving states.

In today’s hyper-partisan environment, partisan redistricting is likely to become the new normal. Recent gerrymandering decisions by the US Supreme Court have opened the way for that to happen.

The US Supreme Court has now ruled that partisan gerrymandering is a political question beyond the reach of federal courts. The 5 to 4 decision was along conservative-liberal lines.  Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the conservative majority:

Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.

With the addition of Justice Coney Barrett, the high court now leans 6 to 3 in favor of the conservatives.

Justin Levitt, an election law professor at Loyola Law School, believes redistricting is now in Mad Max territory where the rule is there are no rules. Because there are more Republican than Democratic legislatures, it will likely appear that red states are more unfair than blue. The truth is otherwise.

Redistricting outcomes bear watching. With the US Senate tied at 50 apiece with ties being broken by Vice President Harris. With only a four-vote differe, one vote can be the difference of who’s in charge of Congress.

The balance of power in the states is another aspect of Biden’s having no coattails. A winning presidential candidate should reasonably be expected to bring along down-ballot members of his own party at every level. The two changes that did occur due to the November elections gave the Republicans trifecta status in Montana and New Hampshire. Both states previously had divided governments.

There are a lot of questions still to be answered. Will Democratic progressives and moderates in Congress be able to strike a balance when it comes to the enactment of climate legislation? Can Democrats and moderate Republicans work together in the post Trump era?

A few days ago, I would have said no. Now that some Republican lawmakers have seen Trump without his clothes there may be opportunities for collective action.

Time will tell—and so will I.

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Christopher Neely's picture
Christopher Neely on Jan 13, 2021

Great analysis, Joel. You make a strong point that Harris only gets to vote in a tie and there are some blue dog democrats, as well as Republicans who could step over party lines in some votes, especially those on energy policy. The task at hand to get our economy to net zero by the close of 2021 is very ambitious and with a presidential election that was much closer than the popular vote showed, the ruling party cannot sit on their hands and wait to receive progress because they are in power. It will take coalition building and buy-in from many midwest communities and legislatures. 

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