Political Hay

Lights Out

The expected House vote on an energy tax increase will be a lose-lose proposition for the Democrats.

By 6.25.09

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Tomorrow House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to bring the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade emissions bill to the floor for a vote. It will be the biggest political risk of her speakership and the first broad-based tax increase of the Obama years.

Already President Obama and the Democratic Congress have raised taxes on smokers, boosting the cigarette tax. But a tax increase that affects just a fifth of the electorate is unlikely to lead to a second Boston Tea Party. The Obama budget blueprint anticipates a return to Clinton-era marginal tax rates on upper-income earners, but that can easily be justified as a tax hike borne by the wealthy who failed to pay their "fair share" while the Republicans were in office.

Cap and trade will hit the wallets of many Americans who are firmly middle-class and fancy themselves admirers of Hope and Change. That's why Republicans, even after unveiling their own energy alternative this month, have kept up the rhetorical assault against the Democrats' "national energy tax."

In every conference call and press conference on energy policy since the start of the year, House Republicans have pilloried "cap and tax." The National Republican Congressional Committee sent out a fundraising letter on Tuesday containing the following broadside: "Cap-and-trade is nothing more than a tax which starts accruing the moment you flip on your light switch. This 'light switch tax' will raise energy costs by hundreds of dollars for the average family and between 1.8 and 7 million American jobs could be lost."

Bill Clinton's honeymoon came to a close when he shelved his middle-class tax cut and proposed tax increases that didn't just fall on the top 1.5 percent. Southern and industrial state Democrats stripped his budget of the most egregious tax increases -- such as the BTU-based energy tax -- but the damage was done. Democrats in marginal districts didn't want to vote with Clinton to raise their constituents' taxes. Those who did often went down to defeat in 1994.

Thus did a Congress with Democratic majorities almost as large as those President Obama enjoys today come within one vote in each house of defeating the Clinton tax increase. Were it not for the votes of Al Gore in the Senate and Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky in the House, Clinton's 1993 tax-and-budget bill would have been defeated despite tiny Republican minorities.

Ask yourself where Al Gore and Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky are now.

Democrats have tried to save Obama and Pelosi from the cruel fate of Waxman-Markey. Congressman Collin Peterson (D-MN) stalled the bill in the Agriculture Committee. Factions ranging from the Blue Dogs on the right to the Congressional Black Caucus on the left expressed their concerns about the bill's price tag.

Peterson relented after Pelosi cut a deal. And the Blue Dogs once again seem to content to roll over and have their tummies scratched by the leadership. Pelosi and company want to pass this bill before the recess.

Don't expect every Democrat to be on board, however. The Hill counts at least eight firm no votes in the Democratic caucus, with only one Republican -- Rep. Mary Bono Mack of California -- definitely voting yes. Expect that number to grow. Does Congressman Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) want to run for re-election in one of the most Republican districts in the nation having voted to raise taxes on working families? What about Travis Childers in Mississippi and Jim Marshall in Georgia, the latter having barely survived close calls even in the strongest Democratic election cycles in years?

Other Democrats will no doubt tempt fate. In New Hampshire, Rep. Paul Hodes is voting yes even though he plans to run for Senate in 2010. His colleague Rep. Carol Shea-Porter plans to do the same, even though she is being seriously targeted by Republicans next November. Will the Granite State -- home of Live Free or Die and "axe the tax" -- reward politicians who raise their taxes?

According to a least one poll (pdf), cap and trade is deeply unpopular among the most Democratic voting bloc in the country: African Americans. That survey was commissioned by a group of black conservatives, but the reluctance of some in the liberal Congressional Black Caucus to support Waxman-Markey suggests that the concerns within this community are real.

A Friday vote on cap and trade is a lose-lose proposition for Pelosi. Fear of the bill's political consequences could hand the speaker a high-profile legislative defeat. Fear of Pelosi could put the Democratic Congress on record raising the taxes of people who can't be caricatured as wealthy.

Just a few more votes like this and it could be lights out for some red-state Democrats.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.