Comment: What it took for Democrats to pass the climate bill

With much stacked against it, it took leadership and some short-term rewards for long-term goals.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

The two names that you have probably heard the most about as Democrats have taken a year or more to pass their big climate-health care-taxes bill have been President Joe Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin. Now that the bill has been passed by the House, it’s time to focus on the other key players who made this happen. One is Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. The others? Democratic party participants who nominated Biden and the Democrats in Congress in the first place.

As The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman put it: “It tells you something about Nancy Pelosi’s skills as a legislator that there is absolutely no one who doubts she will deliver this bill, or really any bill Democrats want, even with the slimmest of majorities. It’s just taken for granted that it’s not even worth worrying about.”

Pelosi has now served four terms — eight years — as speaker, half with a Republican president and half with a Democratic president and unified party government. In those four years with a Democratic president, I can’t think of a single bill that died because the House couldn’t do its part.

And yet especially during the current Congress, her party’s margin has been extremely thin, with the majority needing to keep all but a handful of Democrats on board in order to pass anything that Republicans unanimously opposed. That’s only possible because there are no longer any conservative House Democrats.

But there is still a range of views, from some very moderate liberals to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “squad.” Nor are ideological groups the only potential problem. Regional or state-based interests can make something a hard vote for any number of small groups. And these are politicians who all want something; keeping 218 needed votes together out of 223 Democrats (or whatever the exact numbers have been, since they fluctuate over the course of a two-year Congress) is always difficult. But Pelosi makes it look so easy we don’t even notice.

The last three of those four Congresses have been extremely productive, including the 2019-20 Congress with a Republican-majority Senate and a Republican president. Indeed, Pelosi twice stepped up during national crises — the financial collapse in 2008 and the 2020 pandemic — and passed bills that probably hurt Democrats in the elections that year. As for the productive periods with unified Democratic government, Pelosi doesn’t deserve all the credit; the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and a whole bunch of House and Senate committee chairs all did their parts. But Pelosi probably is first on the list.

So why has it taken so long for major climate legislation to pass? To some extent, it was because it’s a difficult policy challenge for any democracy, as Congress scholar Sarah Binder points out. The problem is that politicians have short time horizons, while the big gains from climate action are mainly about the future, and the far future at that. Formulating a bill that delivered some short-term benefits, in subsidies for consumers and manufacturers that can be cashed in now, was a key to finding something Congress could pass.

Another reason is that for a long time, climate wasn’t one of the Democratic Party’s must-do priorities. That largely is a result of nomination politics. Climate as a policy question is still a relatively new issue, certainly compared with decades-old policy battles such as health care. In both 1992 and 2008, health care was the big unfinished agenda item for mainstream liberal Democrats, and that was reflected in the battles to choose presidential candidates in both those years.

By 2020, after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, other issues were able to move up on the party’s agenda. And political participants, including organized groups and individual activists, donors and governing professionals, increasingly considered climate legislation one of the essential tasks for a unified Democratic government to tackle.

The same process plays out in Senate and House elections. Even members of the House and Senate trying to win Democratic nominations in traditional energy-producing states wound up, by 2020, talking about climate.

It also mattered that climate and health care (but not voting rights) could be addressed using the reconciliation procedure that allows certain bills to be passed with a simple majority vote and avoid being subject to a Republican filibuster.

Issues that have emerged more recently, such as expanding the child tax credit, wound up getting excluded for now. That isn’t because Democrats opposed it. It’s just that it’s hard to fit too much into one bill, or even one Congress. And it’s a reminder that it’s usually tough for something to become a top priority very quickly.

Pay attention to policy during primary elections. It matters as much — or probably even more — than which candidate winds up getting nominated. And also? All that work that activists did tying to push presidential candidates and congressional candidates to take stronger stands on climate really did matter.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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