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June 23, 2009

Collin Peterson is Not Killing the Planet

Not yet, anyway. I agree with Tom Philpott that Peterson's meddling in the Waxman/Markey climate bill is far more than a distraction. Weakening the bill out of spite is pretty much the extreme opposite of statesmanship. And I decried Peterson's clearly implied climate denial just the other day. But I'm a bit leery of going quite as far as Philpott did today:

In short, if Peterson wins this battle, our nation's first significant climate legislation will likely end up at worst rewarding, and at best not penalizing, chemical-intensive, greenhouse-gas-spewing agriculture. We will have bungled a major opportunity for positive change.

President Obama has yet to intervene in this battle. Now's the time. Given that he's a farm-state politician himself, am I being naive to hope that he comes down against the agribusiness interests intent on hijacking this bill?

I'm reading about similar pleas regarding the health care bill; pleas which lose sight of the fact that the road for ambitious legislation is ever a long and bumpy one. While Collin Peterson can force exemptions for the agricultural sector in Waxman/Markey and he can threaten to withhold his committee votes -- I seriously doubt that he can truly kill the bill. Yes, he's going to see some of his demands met -- Kate Sheppard is reporting that Peterson's demand for permits to be given away to rural utilities has already been approved. And as for Peterson's hissy fit over the EPA's ethanol/indirect land use ruling, I'd be willing to bet that he'll get some face-saving provision that will allow him to declare victory and go home.

I say all this not because I think Henry Waxman will throw up his hands and allow the bill to be weakened beyond all use. I say this because Henry Waxman understands that the House vote on the bill is only one small step in the process. The Senate doesn't just "receive" the House bill and vote on it. They're working on their own version. And we can thank our lucky stars that Peterson doesn't get to put on a different suit and show up for work as Sen. Collin Peterson. Certainly, the Senate has perhaps even more obstacles to passage than the House (oh, that filibuster!). But it also has a more enlightened Chairman of its Agriculture Committee -- Sen. Tom Harkin.

Harkin will certainly have a say in the Senate's climate bill and his comments on the fracas in the House are tellingly moderate (via the Hill):
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said he has followed that debate and agrees with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) that the legislative language in that bill needs to be more equitable, considering the interests of large urban areas and more rural states. But he acknowledged those places have competing interests.
While he hasn't had to take a stand yet, Harkin doesn't exactly sound like the kind of guy who is ready to drive his tractor over the climate.

The point is that the Senate bill is likely to look quite different from the House bill -- there's no guarantee that any of Peterson's adulterations will be replicated there. And assuming it gets past a Senate filibuster, it then goes into conference commitee where all those differences have to be ironed out. A lot can happen in conference. Bills can indeed be completely transformed. It's often when "the grownups" get together to clean up the mess left by all the little children (if the House and Senate leadership are smart about the conferrees, that is). And Collin Peterson, though he might volunteer for duty, doesn't get an automatic seat at the table. It's up to House Speak Nancy Pelosi to decide. And I don't think she's feeling particularly charitable to ol' Collin these days.

Once the bill moves out of conference, the House and Senate will have to vote AGAIN on the bill. It's that vote -- which is likely months away -- when the rubber meets the road. And it's in the run up to that vote when you'll probably see Obama go into full barnstorming sales mode -- and when, I imagine, many a blustering farm-state representative will indeed quail. We've been promised by White House Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley that Obama is going to push for passage. But we're a long way from that moment. The bill will have several near-death experiences before then (although the possibility of the bill's actual death in the Senate is ever-present).

Ezra Klein wrote today about the timing of Obama's public (and private) push on the health care bill. He said the President should stay out of it, despite recent, early declarations that health care reform was dead. You don't need to change much in Klein's analysis -- which invokes the Clinton health care crash-and-burn of 1994 -- to apply it to the climate bill:

In 1994, President Bill Clinton exhausted his political capital guiding the development of the legislation. Barack Obama, by contrast, has saved his to push for its passage... [T]here's no reason to rush that moment. For now, the White House should have as little to do as possible with the various legislative products. Let the committees absorb the blows of the bad weeks. Let the early coalitions present themselves. Let the Republicans show their strategy in the mark-up sessions. Let the CBO score all the different options. Let the legislature familiarize itself with different revenue options. Wait. Wait and wait and wait. Wait until Congress has pushed this as far upfield as it's able.

Then open up the White House. Then have Obama on TV. Then have Rahm on the phone with legislators. Then take Olympia Snowe for a ride on Marine One. The White House can exert explosive force on a piece of legislation, but it can only do so effectively for a short period of time. That was the mistake Clinton White House made in 1994. By the time their legislation was near reality, administration officials were so deeply involved that they couldn't add external momentum. It is not a mistake that Rahm Emmanuel, who watched it all happen firsthand, means to repeat.

And as a further corollary to those insights, Klein also predicts a "weak" bill will ultimately be passed which, despite meaningful provisions, will still disappoint progressives. And the same will likely apply to the climate bill. Indeed, what if the bill comes through as weak tea? Well, as I argued the other day, there's nothing wrong with that! If the bill establishes a basic legal framework for dealing with climate change, it's a win and must be passed. As an example, I give you the Clean Air Act. Though landmark legislation, it was relatively weak when it was originally enacted in 1970 -- it exempted major contributors to pollution like smog and acid rain. Granted, we don't have the 20 years it took Rep. Henry Waxman to fix that law. But legislation often improves by accretion. Enviros need to keep that in mind when "deciding" whether or not to bail on Waxman/Markey. The fact is that the climate bill isn't dead and Collin Peterson didn't murder it.

Photo courtesy Grist.org

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