A Taxing Effort

Will Congress actually pass carbon-pricing legislation by December 31, 2017?

This ambitious goal is not as far-fetched as it may seem—especially if Donald Trump damages the Republican Party so severely that the GOP actually loses both houses of Congress (also not a far-fetched prospect). Having said that, the final version of a carbon-pricing bill may disappoint some climate activists.

Carbon-pricing advocates tend to fall into two camps: those who support placing a gradually rising federal fee on carbon emissions and returning all collected revenues to the public as a dividend, to blunt the impact of higher prices for carbon-intensive energy sources, and those who support dramatic reductions in corporate and/or personal income taxes in exchange for the carbon fee.

Can carbon-pricing supporters induce a certain percentage of House and Senate Republicans to vote for a bill that returns all collected carbon-fee revenues to the public as a dividend? That depends on whether enough House and Senate Republicans have the guts to stand up to right-wing media figures who would demonize the dividend as a form of welfare and suggest that stipends would be unfairly ushered to the undocumented (despite the fact that former NASA scientist James Hansen, a staunch advocate of the fee-and-dividend approach, has long argued that a dividend should only go to US citizens). If the House and Senate Republicans who would be needed to vote for a fee-and-dividend bill can’t muster up the courage to push back against the dividend distorters, the bill simply will not pass.

One wonders if the Partnership for Responsible Growth, the group currently running ads on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page calling on the paper’s conservative readers to support market-based efforts to reduce carbon emissions, also believes that House and Senate Republicans will never go for a fee-and-dividend policy. The Partnership supports a carbon fee paired with a dramatic reduction in the federal corporate income tax rate, which the group regards as an anti-competitive anachronism. The group’s apparent logic is House and Senate Republicans will only support legislation to reduce carbon pollution if that legislation explicitly benefits “job creators”—and that slashing the corporate income tax rate would give these Republicans the cover they need to survive right-wing accusations of ideological surrender to Al Gore and Bernie Sanders.

Speaking of Sanders (and the climate-conscious Democratic National Committee platform committee he helped put together), the Partnership is presumably perturbed by calls for the DNC platform to officially endorse carbon pricing as the best means to address human-caused climate change. If the DNC’s platform were to call for carbon pricing, it would surely hurt efforts by the Partnership and other carbon-pricing advocates to forge a bipartisan solution to the problem of carbon pollution. Even House and Senate Republicans who are courageous enough to acknowledge that human-caused climate change is real are susceptible to the idea that if Democrats are for a given policy, they must necessarily be against it, with cap-and-trade and Obamacare/Romneycare being two obvious precedents for this sort of mentality.

It’s a shame that some thirty years after the US Senate held landmark hearings on the climate crisis, both houses of Congress have failed to pass legislation that demonstrates a determination to protect future generations. Perhaps the passage of such legislation is indeed closer than it may appear: if Congress changes hands this fall, it’s entirely possible that a carbon-pricing bill will indeed pass the House and Senate before being signed into law by the end of 2017. However, any legislation intended to cap carbon emissions will require more than a few trade-offs.

UPDATE: InsideClimate News, the Washington Post, MSNBC and CNN on the fight over the DNC platform.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.