Psst. Yah, that’s right, I’m talkin’ to you. Rickie P. tells me you might wanna buy an energy laboratory. Just so happens…….cheap too. (https://www.pinterest.com/vivaveneta/film-noir)
The Trump administration released its recommended 2018 federal budget the other day. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say clean energy and environmental advocates broke out in cold sweats and hot tears. Given the breadth and depth of the proposed cuts, these shivers are being shared with many millions of other people from at-risk seniors, women, infants and children reliant on federal food programs to rural communities in 13 states sure to feel the loss of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).
How flipping Big Bird off federal support in favor of a border wall will make America Great Again—or, why a single mom in Detroit would want Sesame Street to lose funding—is something of a mystery to me. Perhaps, it will become clearer as Congress debates and the President defends his proposals over the next few months.
It is unlikely, in any event, that Trump’s 2018 budget will make it through the legislative gauntlet unscathed. History tells us that writing budget proposals with the blunt end of a meat-ax doesn’t go over all that well on Capitol Hill or with the tens of millions of folks back home, whose lives are touched positively by the expenditure of their own tax dollars and whose futures are threatened by reforms.
Trump’s victory and Sanders’ popularity evidenced the desire of voters to break the hold established politicians have on the federal government. For the generalities and gimmicks of the campaign trail to become the road forward for government, measured action and a certain amount of restraint will be required.
It is well within reason to think the President and his pals are overestimating the readiness of most Americans to accept a rapid and widespread loss of domestic programs to pay for walls and weapons. Trump and company would not be the first administration to make the rookie mistake of underestimating the difficulty of turning so large a ship of state into the winds of reform.
Today’s healthcare debate is but a glimpse of the difficulties populist politicians will be facing in their efforts to convert campaign slogans into consensus reforms. What The Donald himself has admitted about healthcare-- it's an unbelievably complex subject--applies equally to other targets the administration and the Republican majorities in Congress have set their sights on, e.g. foreign aid.
Many turned to Trump in 2016 based on his assumed business acumen and success. The much-right of center folks are not the only ones thinking that government could be better managed. It is one of the few places that consensus can be found.
There is a not so subtle difference, however, between better managed and gutted. Trump’s budget proposals reflect the latter, when it might have been hoped to have begun with the former.
Not to put too fine a point on it--equating the business of government to that of private enterprise is just plain wrong. The President has justifiably earned kudos for having negotiated a lower price for the ninety F-35 strike jets yet to be delivered. A savings of $700M will buy gold-plated faucets for the White House, with enough left over to cover the cost of Trump’s travels to Florida for a working round or two of golf.
There is a difference between using the skills of business in managing the federal government and, running it as a business. Do welfare payments to the Detroit mother OMB Director Mulvaney speaks of improve the bottom line? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to lease mercenaries and equipment than to spend the proposed $824B on defense in FY 2018 ?
The obverse of these questions should also be considered: why isn’t investment in the development of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) a good business decision? It might improve the economics of the vast deposits Trump and coal-state politicians are so fond of promoting.
Why shouldn’t the federal government continue to invest in the development of clean energy systems like wind, solar and battery storage? After all, these technologies are known generators of new jobs. Renewable energy and storage significantly increase the resiliency of communities—protecting them from costly outages. Tech giants have redundant power systems, why not cities?
The proposed 2018 budget is much less about fiscal restraint and much more about political philosophy. Dan Balz of the Washington Post makes an important distinction between The Donald and his predecessors in the Oval Office:
Trump has emerged in his early weeks in office as a president with an agenda to tear down parts of
the federal government that he sees as superfluous or hostile to his views.
Trump’s vision is not his alone. What The Donald sees has much to do with what his chief strategist and senior counselor wants him to see. Bannon has made no secret of his desire to deconstruct the administrative state; and, the President seems anything but reluctant to oblige.
Trump’s disdain of government and disregard of the rules politicians generally play by truly distinguishes him and his administration from those who went before. Purely as matters of strategic importance, these characteristics make it much harder for clean energy and environmental advocates to succeed in the political arena, at least at the federal level.
Trump’s indifference to normal political pressures will continue to prompt the move of policy advocates from congressional hearing rooms to federal court rooms. His continued indifference should prompt consideration of alternatives to federal research, development and deployment programs as well.
This is hardly the first-time clean energy and environmental protections have encountered political resistance from a president and Congress. In the past, conventional counter-campaigns have been successfully undertaken. Supporters were encouraged to write or otherwise communicate with their Congressional delegations, connections were made between state and federal officials and efforts to jamb or slow the progress of an opponent’s favored piece of legislation, either in committee or on the floor, resulted in a bit of horse trading.
Yes, that was the business-as-usual scenario of establishment politicians. It is what it was and to a certain degree it worked. I make no apologies for those past practices.
I’ve been around the barns long enough to remember when the Reagan administration decided to lighten its opposition to renewables, including the weatherization program and other efficiency measures.
That was then and this is now. Then was a different time; among the differences was a much higher level of cordiality—at the least civility--between opponents. Compromise was not then a dirty word but an accepted political practice.
Now civility seems a wisp of what it was and compromise can kill a political career faster than a taped conversation with Billy Bush. Intransigence can kill a good mood; and, it certainly makes governance much more difficult. This too is what it is. Survival in so contentious and antagonistic an environment requires a different set of solutions.
Now, for example, making the case for compromise is orders of magnitude more difficult. A member of Congress considering support for even minimum environmental protections must not only consider what her constituents will think but whether it is worth being tweeted about by the President in the morning of a slow news day.
I have nothing but respect for any member of Congress from either side of the aisle currently willing to come out of the closet as a compromiser.
I would imagine that anyone still reading this article has stuck with it this long waiting to see what I might offer as the solution. Let me apologize. I don’t have a solution. However, I do have some suggestions.
I don’t really see the politics of contention softening anytime soon. Therefore, I think it is time to begin thinking of how to achieve greater stability in the effort to bear both the hard and soft sciences necessary for the U.S. and the world to make a timely transition to a sustainable and just future?
Would it be possible, for example, to privatize the national energy laboratories—at least the non-defense, pro-clean energy/environment portions of them? It is doubtful that Trump’s Make America Great Again budget, coupled with its willingness to dismiss all things scientific, will fulfill the promise of its title.
It will, for certain, kick thousands of good minds to the curb and surely squander a wealth of experience. Experience and knowledge needed to solve the problem.
What if the U.S. offered to give China, India, Britain, France, Germany and other nations a good price on a used lab in Golden, Colorado as part of its foreign aid program? Would Silicon Valley be up to investing in part of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory for a bit of forgiveness come tax time?
The truth of the matter—inconvenient or otherwise—is time remains of the essence in the global quest for sustainability. Whether you choose to define sustainable in terms of slowing climate change or dealing with human congestion, something needs to be done on a regular basis.
Enlightened selfishness is no more likely than strident partisanship to achieve the desired endpoint. That the U.S. is as far along the sustainability curve as it is, given forty or more years of political whiplash, is something of a miracle.
For order to come out of chaos, the dialogue must change. Quadrennial combat between opposing political philosophies and years of litigation may keep us in the game, they will not result in our winning it.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.