Can Congress translate Biden’s climate ambitions into law?

Climate Economy

Can Congress translate Biden’s climate ambitions into law?

Share on

What you need to know about the American Jobs Plan, in-limbo climate bills, and other haggling and horse trading inside the beltway

BY KARI HUUS AND ISAAC IGNATIUS

With a new president in the White House and a fresh sense of urgency to head off climate disaster, the stage is set for legislation that drives the effort forward. Can American lawmakers rise to the challenge? This blog will track their progress — from symbolic bills lobbed over the transom to serious nuts-and-bolts legislation hammered out in Congressional committees and sometimes obscure rule changes that matter — and capture the ebb and flow of climate discourse inside the beltway. A must read for investors trying to sort out Washington’s fast-changing regulatory landscape.

In his first few months in office, Biden dramatically changed the country’s posture on global warming, bringing in climate-serious appointees to run key government agencies, rejoining the Paris Agreement, and hosting a climate summit where he announced more ambitious climate goals for the U.S. 

Now for the tricky part: getting climate ambitions translated into legal code and funding that makes a real and lasting difference. 

What’s in the legislative meat grinder?

Enter Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal, rolled out by the White House on March 31. The American Jobs Plan lays out much-needed repairs to crumbling U.S. infrastructure, emphasizing major investments for renewable energy systems and green transportation, clean up of heavy industry, projects that protect against a growing number of extreme weather events, and a Civilian Climate Corps (a job-generating program modeled after FDR’s Work Progress Administration). The title of the proposal is an effort to sell it on the promise of green jobs across the blue and red political landscape.

Here’s some context: The Biden proposal is a major advance in climate-friendly policy initiatives from the White House. It is obviously a 180-degree turn from the Trump administration and goes beyond even Obama administration efforts. But it falls far short of the $10 trillion Green New Deal. From the point of view of Green New Deal backers, Biden’s American Jobs Plan is, at best, a start in the right direction. 

“We always knew the Green New Deal would be a series of bills over the course of many years, not just one piece of legislation,” the Sunrise Movement responded when the White House unveiled the American Jobs Plan. “If we do our jobs, the plan that was announced today could be the first pillar of the Green New Deal.”

‘This is where we want everyone to go’

In any case, the 25-page proposal for the American Jobs Plan is still little more than an outline — a wave of the hand by the general pointing his troops in direction of battle. The proposal is “light on details,” says Marc Boom, director of federal affairs for the Natural Resources Defence Council. “It says, ‘this is where we want everyone to go.’”

Now for the sausage-making: The component parts of the proposal get parsed out to the relevant congressional committees to be debated and mapped out. In the end, they will be pieced back together in the form of a bill. 

Lawmakers are not starting from scratch, though. A lot of climate legislation was well underway before the president announced the American Jobs Plan — and these bills, floating around in various stages of consideration, are likely fodder for that plan. In particular: 

  • The CLEAN Futures Act (H.R. 1512). This nearly 1,000-page bill, revised and reintroduced by House Democrats in March, may not move ahead on its own now, but it offers a view of how the details may look in the Biden bill. Among the things that this bill has already mapped out are provisions for a national clean electricity standard, deployment of a national electric vehicle infrastructure and the framework for a green bank (or clean energy and sustainability accelerator) to facilitate investment in the transition to a green economy. In fact, the CLEAN Futures Act covers just about every sector of the economy, so it’s a great guide to congressional Democrats’ thinking on just about any aspect of tackling climate change. (If you don’t have time for the whole bill, here’s a handy one-pager.)
  • The GREEN Act (H.R. 848), a.k.a. Growing Renewable Energy and Efficiency Now Act of 2021, proposes a long list of tax credits and other incentives for low-carbon activities and purchases — covering everything from offshore wind generation to bicycle commuting. 

Democrats have the votes

Republicans argue that The American Jobs Plan is too expensive and don’t like that it includes investment in areas not traditionally considered infrastructure, like childcare and elder care. They also don’t like the increase in corporate taxes designed to pay for the plan. Mitch McConnell has vowed that the initiative will not garner a single Republican vote in the Senate. 

Nonetheless, some version of the administration proposal is likely to become law in the coming months. If they can’t get a bipartisan agreement, Democrats say they have the votes they need to pass it through a process called budget reconciliation. Stay tuned for more updates.

Honorable mention: A win on methane 

Here’s some beltway news that may have escaped your attention but could make a really important difference: On Wednesday (4/28) the U.S. Senate voted in support of regulations that require companies that produce or transport gas through pipelines to regularly check for methane leaks and repair them. It’s pretty straightforward from an environmental perspective: methane that leaks into the atmosphere rather than getting burned is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping heat even more readily than CO2. Not to put too fine a point on it, a Washington Post editorial said this might just be “the Senate’s most important climate vote ever.”

Now, if you can follow this: Using something called the Congressional Review Act, the vote allowed the Senate to reverse a Trump-era decision to rollback EPA regulations put in place during the Obama administration to control these harmful emissions.

Even if you didn’t follow that, just move on to this, because it’s more interesting: The Democrat-sponsored move on methane actually garnered three Republican votes: Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Rob Portman (Ohio), a bipartisan vote so rare it’s worth a mention.

 

Written by

Kari Huus

Kari Huus is a freelance writer based in Seattle. She was a reporter for MSNBC.com from 1996-2014, with stints covering international business, foreign policy, and national affairs. Earlier, she reported on China for the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong, and Newsweek in Beijing. From 2015 to 2020, she was managing editor for the website Money Talks News.