Passing Climate Change Legislation

Now that the initial euphoria following the introduction of the Waxman-Markey climate change bill has passed, this past week may have reminded supporters of climate change legislation just how difficult it will be and what sort of compromises may be necessary to get it done. First, Greenwire reported again on the difficulty that senators and representatives from coal states will have supporting climate legislation that would increase electricity rates. This was consistent with the recent Senate action that seemingly put the final nail in the coffin on the idea of using the budget process as a vehicle for climate legislation in the Senate (in order to avoid the threat of a filibuster).

Last Thursday, the Obama Administration seemed to acknowledge this reality. White House spokesman Benjamin LaBolt, while stating that the Administration’s goal remains a cap-and-trade program in which all allowances are auctioned, rather than simply allocated to existing emitters, noted that Congress was looking at a number of options and stated that the Administration “will be flexible” in order to get a bill passed. Another White House aide, Joseph Aldy also did not rule compromise on the auction issue.

Part of the Administration’s concern has to be placating the so-called Gang of 16, a group of moderate Senators. It is difficult to imagine climate change legislation being enacted without the support of this group, which includes several senators most people would think of as reliable votes for the Democratic leadership.

The Administration faces a difficult balancing act on this issue. If it signals too early and too strongly a willingness to compromise, that could be perceived as a sign of weakness and the debate could shift too far—from the Administration’s perspective—toward allocating allowances, rather than auctioning them. On the other hand, if the Administration sticks too firmly to the auction approach, it risks losing credibility and influence, as Congress may simply develop legislation without regard to the White House. If I were a betting man, I’d still assume that climate legislation will include an auction, but the percentages may start out relatively low (perhaps with a mechanism to increase that percentage over time).

Posted by Seth Jaffe on Apr 13, 2009

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