Political Hay

Kerry Looks for a Legacy

What we're seeing is an ugly repeat of what happened in the House to pass cap-and-trade.

By and 10.23.09

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After cap-and-trade energy legislation cleared the first test in the House of Representatives this summer, it stalled in the world's most deliberative body. Then, John Kerry decided to jumpstart a compromise bill among his colleagues.

Ever since Kerry came up short in the 2004 presidential election, he's been casting about for a legacy and seems to think he has a winner. The way he's been talking and writing about it practically screams "history books," and it certainly wouldn't be bad for his domestic tranquility. His wife's Teresa and John Heinz III Foundation is a major booster of trendy green causes. It focuses "in particular" on influencing "those who write the laws and cast legislation-creating votes."

The final cap-and-trade bill, Kerry said, would be the result of "honest give and take" among all senators of good will -- principally Democrats. But what give, which take? Right now there is talk of adding provisions to the bill that would allow more nuclear power and offshore drilling. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, may even provide the necessary bipartisan cover to help pass the bill.

Talk of adding nuclear or drilling to the bill, however, is just talk. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has done everything in his power to keep a nuclear waste disposal facility from opening in the Yucca Mountains. Offshore drilling is deeply unpopular with the Florida delegation, and the drilling issue is too complicated to be part of a grand compromise.

What we're more likely to see is an ugly repeat of what happened in the House to pass cap-and-trade: the worst sort of pork-fried deal making followed by an absurdly fast vote, with opponents left sputtering.

Recall that when Henry Waxman and Edward Markey introduced a draft of their cap and trade bill in May, it was a svelte 400 pages long. It grew to 1,200 pages the week before the vote and then an additional 300 pages the morning of the vote, making it impossible for Republicans to digest the unappetizing contents of the legislation in time.

What was in those extra pages? They were fattened with special favors to representatives otherwise inclined to vote against a massive new energy tax. Even that might not have been enough if the House leadership didn't promise numerous representatives that they would add extra exemptions or favors into the bill when the House and Senate come together to reconcile the two bills.

The draft of the bill that Kerry introduced in the Senate is 800 pages long. How long will it be after he is done doling out favors? We're pretty sure, from having listened to a few of Kerry's stump speeches, that his bill will be much longer than the House version.

Many parliamentarians claim that the Senate is good break for bad legislation, with its supermajority requirement for controversial bills. That's true, to a point. But there is not much organized opposition to cap-and-trade and Kerry has already moved to neutralize the bill's largest potential critic: big business.

He did that by allowing a coalition of corporate titans known as the Climate Action Partnership to help write the legislation. Kerry's bill incorporates almost all of the proposals from the CAP's Blueprint for Legislative Action.

Why did big business agree to go along? Some companies favor cap-and-trade because they are owned by the Obama administration (General Motors). Others stand to make windfall profits on the carbon derivatives market created by cap-and-trade (Alcoa and DuPont). And some support a carbon cap because it's good for the bottom line, because it will hobble competition (General Electric is a leader in low carbon technologies).

With big business effectively bought off, Kerry could start soliciting senators. His strategy was -- and is -- quite simple: Make a cap-and-trade scheme worthwhile to at least 60 of his colleagues so as to beat a filibuster threat from those senators who have the most to lose, chiefly representatives of coal-dependent economies.

There's already a long line of favor-seekers. Senators from natural gas producing states outlined their demands in a letter to leadership. Rust-belt senators want constituent industries to get a cut of the carbon derivatives market. Prairie state senators want to pay farmers to sequester carbon. Corn-belt senators want to relax regulations for corn-based ethanol. Etc.

Though maybe "favor seekers" is the wrong way of looking at it. The term "compromise" takes on an entirely new meaning under Senator Kerry's august leadership. Forget such fuddy-duddy notions as "give and take" or "back and forth." The deal is: Supporters of his cap-and-trade bill get everything they want. That's the only way they'll vote for a massive new energy tax at a time of straitened economic circumstances. Many senators who would be inclined to oppose the bill face a tough choice: Join now to exact concessions or fight it out, and risk massive economic fallout for their constituents.

The newly senior senator from Massachusetts knows that he has one shot to get the bill through, so he is moving it at a pace that is, by the Senate's standards, almost reckless. He is adding pages furiously behind the scenes to craft something that can get through the Senate with very little debate. Ohio Senator George Voinovich complained this week, "We're going to have hearings on Tuesday and I haven't seen the bill."

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About the Author

William Yeatman is an energy policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.