Policy Debate: You Decide

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Congress and Global Warming Policy

Over the past decade, scientific evidence has mounted that global warming is accelerating and that it is caused by human activity. For much of his presidency, George W. Bush dismissed concerns about global warming as an unproven theory. Although the former president’s position had softened by 2007, the executive branch did little to develop policies that would reduce global warming. Congress stepped into this policy vacuum in 2007 as members introduced bills aimed at curbing global warming. To highlight the importance of the issue to Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) created a new House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. The creation of the new committee signaled the Democratic Congress’s intention to lead the way in devising policies to address global warming.

Yet there is significant disagreement on what the best policies are for addressing global warming. How much regulation is necessary, and how tough should regulations be? What impact would strict regulation have on economic growth? These are the questions that Congress confronts as it seeks to act on global warming.

Those favoring tougher regulations emphasize the need for quick and strong action to stop global warming. Speaker Pelosi sought to highlight these arguments soon after she took office. In early 2007, Pelosi took the unusual step of testifying before the House Committee on Science and Technology to urge passage of a mandatory “cap-and-trade system.” Mandatory caps would limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that industries could put into the air. Under such a system, industries that exceed their caps can buy emissions credits from industries whose emissions are lower than the amount allowed. Those favoring tough regulation also supported higher mileage standards for automobiles.

On the other side of the issue are members of Congress who oppose government regulation and point to the potential economic damage that such regulations can cause. One of the most influential opponents of Pelosi’s regulatory approach to global warming was her fellow Democrat John Dingell (Mich.), who was, at that time, chair of the critically important House Energy and Commerce Committee. A powerful advocate for the automobile industry throughout his 50-plus years in Congress, Dingell vociferously opposed Pelosi’s agenda. Anxious to avoid any competition against his committee, Dingell demanded that the new Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming have no power to propose legislation. When Pelosi conceded to his demand, Dingell derided the new committee as “about as useful as side pockets on a cow.”a Although Dingell came to support a cap-and-trade system for regulating greenhouse gases, he continued to resist higher mileage-per-gallon standards for automobiles on the grounds that they would cause the auto industry to bear a disproportionate cost of addressing global warming.[1]

These divisions made it difficult for Congress to reach agreement on an energy bill in 2007, as the Senate and House passed bills with conflicting provisions and proponents of the cap-and-trade system introduced separate legislation. The new select committee held hearings to highlight the issue of global warming and to keep it on the agenda, but it could do little else.

In 2009, a House energy bill passed containing a cap-and-trade system, by a vote of 219-212. Forty-four Democrats voted against the bill, a split that showed regional and ideological divisions among Democrats, especially between those representatives from areas that depend on the coal industry and heavy manufacturing and liberal Democrats from the East and West coasts. The measure was unable to get enough support to pass the Senate, and, as the 2010 elections neared, opposition to cap-and-trade systems became one of the major points of the Tea Party movement. In the face of these disagreements, Congress acted where it found common ground by increasing spending to promote “green technologies.” Although this spending conveyed a new sense of purpose in addressing climate change, the hard work of crafting a forceful set of policies to address climate change still lay ahead.


[1] In a rare departure from the seniority system, Dingell was voted out as Energy and Commerce chair in 2008 and replaced by California Democrat Henry Waxman, an environmentalist who was frustrated by Dingell’s stalling of environmental legislation that would affect the auto industry.

a. Joanna Neuman, “The Nation: Detroit’s Bullying Angel Is Set to Fight: Longtime Democratic Rep John Dingell Digs in Against His Party’s Environmental Agenda,” Los Angeles Times, August 11, 2007, p. A1.

1.
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Why is it so difficult for members of the same party—in this case Democrats—to agree on a policy to address global warming?
2.
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What is the purpose of a select congressional committee that cannot introduce legislation?
3.
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What interests do members of Congress take into account when considering environmental legislation?
4.
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Which environmental issues do you think Congress should address, and what should Congress do about these issues?

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