Creating the right political climate

CREATING THE RIGHT POLITICAL CLIMATE…. One would like to think the circumstances for a major new energy/climate bill are ripe. Indeed, between the massive environmental catastrophe and the size of the Democratic majorities on the Hill, we’ll probably not see an opportunity like this for many, many years.

But Congress nevertheless seems reluctant to act, and as Jonathan Cohn noted this morning, lawmakers aren’t facing much in the way of public pressure.

While Obama and congressional leaders obviously have some leverage at the margins, their most powerful weapon is the ability to make members of Congress fear constituent retribution. And that’s simply not a threat they can make stick when members aren’t getting an earful from people who care. […]

[T]o be clear, it’s not as if the environmental community is sitting on its hands. Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow and direct of climate change advocacy at the Center for American Progress, points out that organizations like CAP’s Action Fund, the Sierra Club, and Environmental Defense Fund have been organizing everything from protests at district offices to Washington visits from military veterans pushing energy independence — with more activism to come. That’s all to the good. Even a scaled-back climate bill could make a difference, as my better-informed colleague Brad Plumer has argued. But the existing pressure doesn’t seem strong enough to make it a reality.

Agreed. During the fight over health care, lawmakers were led to believe their votes on this issue would be a defining moment of their careers. Members were afraid that the wrong move on this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform a dysfunctional system would carry dramatic consequences.

But on energy/climate, the activism hasn’t been nearly as intense, prompting Congress to make the issue less of a priority. The polls look encouraging, suggesting the public is inclined to back the Democratic proposals, but that support hasn’t translated into aggressive advocacy — phone calls to lawmakers’ offices, letter-writing campaigns, district meetings, sizable rallies, etc.

Cohn added that the president and his allies feel as though they’ve “hit the political limits of what they can achieve” on an energy bill, which is why they’ve been so prepared to make concessions.

If engaged constituents want more, Congress will have to feel considerably more heat than they are now.