The Senate is scheduled to be open for an additional 32 days. It’s not that the upper chamber works harder or has more to think about than the House, it’s more a reflection of a mistrust of the president—particularly this President. As long as the Senate is technically in session, the chance for Trump making interim appointments drops pretty much to zero.
I thought it helpful to provide a rundown of the remaining legislative days’ events and offer a bit of commentary about what Congress and the White House/executive branch will be doing between now and November. Having some idea of what our elected leaders and representatives are likely to be up to in Capital City should help readers plan what they might want to be up to politically themselves.
There are significant things still to be done by the 115th Congress. The Senate, for example, will have responsibility for acting on Trump’s nominees for federal judgeships and literally hundreds of key executive slots, including ambassadorships and the number two and three officials in many of the cabinet-level agencies and departments that have yet been filled or need to be re-filled because of presidential petulance.
Another mainstay legislative priority popping up before November is funding the government for Fiscal Year 2019. Most of the hard decisions have already been made. Some others do remain, e.g., the Farm Bill, will need new authorizing legislation. There will also be the inevitable surprises over which members of Congress will want to have some say.
Unaccountable occurrences can include, anything—airstrikes in Syria, escalated trade wars or skirmishes between the U.S. and any other nation in the world with the possible exception of Russia, the resignation of a president—as opposed to the continuing resignation of the nation to the president.
Much of the action over the next two months of legislative days, however, will amount to little more than a stylized pre-election dance. There will be the inevitable dumping of legislative proposals having no chance of being considered by the requisite committee let alone of passage.
Those members running for re-election to their current office or election to a new office cure their records with these introductions. They can—with a straight face and uncrossed fingers—stand before constituents and say “well, at least I tried.” Accompanying these butt-fillers are statements for the Congressional Record that will find their way into emails, twits and other campaign literature.
This year does promise a bit more internal drama with the recent announcement by Speaker of the House Ryan that he will not be seeking re-election in November. Ryan is joining a near-record number of House incumbents who are looking for a career change or running for another office, e.g., governor or senator. As of April 11th, 40 Republicans and 19 Democrats will be giving up their seats.
Announcements by Republican House members are being factored daily into the growing speculation that the GOP’s majority status in the lower chamber is seriously threatened. The professional prognosticators are currently more sanguine about the Senate’s remaining in Republican hands, as recent polls are beginning to show some breaks in a blue wave.
Speaker Ryan’s announced retirement has set off a chain of command struggle that will impact both the sitting 115th and the coming 116th Congresses. How exactly will depend upon the outcome of November’s balloting and a fair amount of internal party politicking.
There will also be a continuing series of executive agency actions through the remainder of 2018. In the following paragraphs, I have highlighted some of the legislative and executive actions likely to impact federal clean energy and environmental policies and programs. Not a complete list, it references some of the high points.
Given the number of times candidates and incumbents will be accessible to voters in their home districts, defenders will have ample opportunity to raise their climate concerns office seekers. As always, I encourage clean energy and climate advocates to avail themselves of their access to the candidates. The more knowledgeable and committed constituents show themselves to be, the more the candidates will be put on notice that climate matters.
Republican leaders in both the House and Senate are hoping to keep intra-party controversies between now and November to a minimum; this means keeping any major legislation off the floor for a vote. The last big piece of legislative work was the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill Trump signed before Easter. Any party favors not paid for in the spending bill or made part of the earlier Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (H.R. 1892) can pretty well be written off.
Having passed both pieces of legislation, the only must budget action the current Congress needs to undertake before the election is the passage of a Continuing Resolution (CR) covering the first months of Fiscal Year 2019, which starts October 1, 2018. There are few in either party that would like to see anything approximating a debate about keeping the government open five weeks before the polls open in November.
The Bipartisan Budget Act raised the limits for both defense and non-defense spending and lifted the debt ceiling until March 2019. It was technically a net positive for renewables and the environment as it maintained many programs the Administration had targeted for draconian budget cuts and overall provided an additional $300 billion for civilian programs overall. The word technical is being used to warn readers that getting the Administration to spend the available dollars may prove to be another matter.
A new CR covering the time between the start of FY 2019 and when a new Congress comes to town should be a walk in the park compared to previous years. The operative words here being should be.
There will, however, be words traded and fingers pointed—both across and within party boundaries-- over the inability of Congress to pass an annual budget, appropriating and authorizing legislation. The biggest potential losers in these blame games may well be establishment Republican lawmakers and the White House. The reason being the ballooning deficit—now estimated to blow through $1 trillion in 2019—at the hands of Republicans in power.
Who knew that tax cuts for the rich, overseas military actions, delays in the implementation of some healthcare taxes, natural disaster relief and such could cost so much? Certainly not a president clever enough to figure out that Puerto Rico is an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water.
Two topics having to do with federal spending practices sure to garner a fair amount of air-time over the remainder of the Congressional calendar are rescission of some of the spending included in the CR and the budget setting/spending procedures themselves.
In anticipation of the charges of profligacy and the seemingly perpetual need of last-minute spending resolutions, both the House and Senate are taking a look at how things are getting or not getting done in Washington—budget-wise. There are several committees, including the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, looking into the matter. An idea floated by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Enzi (R-WY) is to do away with his committee and amend the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act to reflect reality better.
The Act created a set of institutional changes designed to help Congress regain power over the budget process. An alternative would be to drop any requirement of passing an annual budget resolution and relying on the appropriations and authorizing committees to work together. Another option surely to be a topic of campaign rhetoric by conservative Republican candidates will be a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
It is doubtful that any real changes in Congressional spending procedures will come about this year. The issue of deficits will, however, play a substantial role in the election of a successor to Ryan and members of his existing leadership team and the primary and general elections of both parties.
There is some talk about the possibility of a little-used legislative procedure that would rescind some of the programs funded in the CR. House conservatives, e.g., Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), have been making noises, along with unidentified White House staff, that the Party and the President need to show themselves less libertine. The talk is likely to remain just talk.
It is not to say that there aren’t nearer-term management issues to be faced. There are several federal programs still not accounted for in either the omnibus or the budget acts. Three have a connection to climate change: the national flood-insurance program (NFIP) which expires in July; the Farm Bill (H.R. 2) which comes due in September; and, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
Forecasters in the U.S. and the U.K. are predicting the coming hurricane season could be as bad as the previous one. The 2018 Budget Act included tens of billions of dollars in federal aid. Recovery funds count against the annual federal budget and contribute to growing deficits. It is inconceivable the NFIP won’t be routinely extended—either by resolution or a vote on the bill—in an election year.
The WRDA authorizes the use of funds already appropriated for constructing and maintaining national water resources and infrastructure through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These activities include: maintaining navigable channels, reducing flood and storm damage, and restoring aquatic ecosystems.
The Farm Bill is heading into a political maelstrom. In the words of Congresswoman Pingree (D-ME), the bill has become the latest partisan battle, following in the steps of healthcare and tax reform. The 641-page farm bill draft was written by Republicans behind closed doors, and they are hoping it passes quickly before anyone even has time to read it. The draft was released last Thursday and will be marked up by the House Agriculture Committee today, less than a week later.
Among its provisions are new work requirements for low-income individuals and families who benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Most studies are showing that adults in the program that are not already working are mostly the ones who can’t work. The proposed bill also strips mandatory funding for Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Value-Added Producer Grants, Rural Energy for America Program, and the Organic Certification Cost Share Program.
Republicans should worry about the reception the bill will receive from rural voters. Wood energy advocates should also be concerned about the future of the legislation for different reasons. According to the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, the House Agriculture Committee added $25 million per year for each of fiscal years 2019 through 2023 for the Community Wood Energy and Wood Innovation Program. Grants would cover up to 35% of the capital costs for installing a community wood energy system or building an innovative wood product facility, and individual grants would not exceed $1 million, $1.5 million for special circumstances.
The bill faces a bleak future. Even should it receive the 218 votes needed to pass the House, the Senate is likely to keep it off the floor—forcing passage of an extension of the current program before the September 30 deadline.
There has been increasing speculation of tax reform 2.0 in 2018. Members of Congress and the White House used the 17th of April—Tax Day—to tout the recent reforms and to suggest the possibility of another round of reforms that would make the temporary individual cuts in last year’s legislation permanent.
The 2017 tax package gave businesses a permanent rate reduction but included a sunset provision for individuals because of the need to keep the bill’s cost below the $1.5 trillion threshold to allowing passage by a simple Senate majority. The estimated price of the new proposals is between $573 and $736 billion. This time around a supermajority of 60 votes in the Senate would be required.
Congressional Republicans are torn between conservatives still fuming over the current deficit and election strategists thinking they can sucker Democrats into supporting it at the risk of losing voter support in November. Between the internal Republican Party conflicts, Democratic mocking of the last bill and recent polls showing just 27 percent of Americans thought the reforms were a good idea in the first-place, a new initiative remains a low-percentage shot at this point.
Even with a light legislative agenda, the Senate will still have something significant to say about the future of clean energy and environmental programs and regulations through the confirmation process. Trump is well aware of the importance of fill judicial vacancies and has given every indication of moving to fill as many slots as possible. The quality of his judicial appointments has been quite low even by Republican standards.
The Donald hasn’t shown much better judgement from a climate perspective in his nominations of sub-cabinet level agency executives. The recent confirmation of a coal industry lobbyist for the number 2 slot at EPA exemplifies others in the queue. It is important to remember that these deputy, under and assistant secretaries are the ones likely to move up the chain should their chiefs, e.g., Pruitt or Zinke, move out.
The leadership transition in the House also bears watching. Although the greatest impact on federal clean energy and environmental programs will be the outcome of the mid-terms, Ryan’s stepping out of power leaves a vacuum—the filling of which will have some impact on climate policy. A conservative Republican victory-whether in the leadership chain or at the polls—will mean continued resistance and potential reversal of existing federal programs and policies.
Trump and company are much better-served with the rise of conservatives like McCarthy (R-CA) up the leadership ladder. Ironically, McCarthy is likely to face opposition from even more polarizing right-leaning members of the Republican caucus like Jim Jordan (R-OH) and any of the other cast of characters comprising the House Freedom Caucus. It is important to remember that they who lead their caucuses determine committee memberships.
The Democratic caucus is hardly immune to leadership troubles. The continuing tensions between conservative and establishment Republicans in Congress and between members of Congress and the White House can serve to hide tensions in the Democratic ranks.
Make no mistake. Democrats are as much conflicted between centrist establishment forces and left-leaning progressives. The Party still lacks a cohesive message. As seen in the number of primary fights between moderates and liberals—especially in middle-America—tensions run high.
Even should the House majority shift from Republican to Democrat when the dust settles in November, it is not at all clear what that would mean for the clean energy and climate communities. The hope is a new Democratic majority in either, or both Congressional chambers can become an effective counter-point to conservatives and Trump and company.
From a climate perspective, the nation needs more than a drag on the Trump administration to re-establish a proactive federal agenda for combatting global warming.
If dead-weight were all that was needed, then the nation is well-served by the current, and continuing Congressional gridlock and the 2018 mid-terms would make no difference.
The November elections, however, do make a difference. The Trump administration will continue its efforts to rollback Obama era environmental regulations and to shift resources and policies away from clean energy alternatives in support of coal and other fossil fuels at every opportunity.
Although Congress may not be in session for most of the next seven months, the Departments of Energy, Interior, the Environmental Protection Administration and other federal agencies, departments, and boards will be open for business—their regulatory calendars are full. Actions pending include: revisions and rescissions of automotive fuel efficiency standards (CAFE); the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS); grid resiliency and the role to be played by old coal and nuclear generating units; how harmful air emissions are calculated; coal, gas and oil exploration/extraction on federal lands; and, a host of other proposed rulemakings and executive actions.
The White House will also continue to consider and adjust tariffs, e.g., offering country exemptions from import charges on photovoltaic panels, steel, and other technologies and materials that impact solar and wind energy projects.
Beyond continued diligence by the clean energy and climate communities of what is happening in Washington over the next months, efforts to keep climate and clean energy high on the priority lists of voters and the agendas of candidates competing for office must be re-doubled and tripled. The absence of climate in Congressional debates is reflected in campaign dialogues.
Climate change is not showing up in the top or nor even in the middle tier of 2018 voter priorities. Healthcare has recently emerged as number one. Terrorism and gun violence remain near the top. The economy keeps moving down the list of the most critical concerns, and tax reform, as stated earlier, was never really on the list.
The lowly lot of climate on voter priority lists in the 2016 election continues in 2018 according to the Pew Research Center. (Graph below)
There is a massive disconnect between attitudinal surveys on climate change and polls on what motivates voters in primary and general elections.
No solace should be found in the absence of any direct Congressional assault on environmental regulation, as there was just after Trump was elected. Neither is it a good sign that funding of federal clean energy, science, and environmental programs remains at relatively stable levels--despite the Administration’s efforts to hack budgets back to pennies on the dollar.
As important and rewarding as the legal victories that have prevented EPA Administrator Pruitt, Interior Secretary Zinke and other administration officials from placing themselves above the law, they are no substitute for aggressive federal efforts to combat climate change through needed research and regulation.
The Trump administration continues, on a near daily basis, to attack and undermine the existing federal clean energy and climate framework. Defense is not enough, and a sustained offense is impossible as long as our elected Republican and Democratic representatives do not believe climate matters in an actionable way to voters.
The legislative calendars of the House and Senate look to lighten in the remaining days between now and the midterm election. I urge all clean energy and climate advocates to see and use this as an opportunity to convince the candidates of both parties that their stance on global warming matters to voters—not just in terms of programs and policies but in the quality of individuals put forth and confirmed to fill key executive and judicial positions.
Don’t let the climate be the victim of partisan politics!
Photo credit: https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=48989&picture=washington-dc-cherry-blossoms
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.