Two major pieces of legislation are likely to become law before members of this Congress go home for the closing rounds of their re-election campaigns, and neither of them is climate change. “DEAD, that’s D-E-A-D,” is how a veteran lobbyist described the legislation to a Process Gas Consumers (PGC) post-GasMart luncheon in Chicago Wednesday at the same time the latest climate change version was being introduced in the Senate.
Financial reform and a bill to increase the liability for oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico are the two measures that will make it through. Financial reform will be passed because the mood of the country is such that any congressman who really wants to get re-elected needs Wall Street’s scalp on his belt. It’s time to bring in a “substantial new regulatory regime” and tell the financial markets “the Wild West is over,” said Greg Means, co-founder and principal of the Alpine Group in Washington.
As for the oil spill, “Congress has two responses to a crisis: one is to do nothing and the other is to overreact. In this case it ain’t going to be nothing,” so an increase in the liability limit is likely to be passed. But while expansion of offshore drilling “is off the table for now,” it has a good chance of coming back later because the federal government needs the revenue it collects from offshore drilling.
On climate change, “they just don’t have the votes,” Means said. Forty Republicans would vote against it along with about a dozen Democrats representing states hit hard by the economic downturn, he said. Having voted for one expensive bill, the health care reform bill, they don’t dare vote for another. And climate change legislation would be expensive, potentially closing down more factories that won’t be able to pay their energy bills and putting more people out of work.
Means suggested 2013 would be the earliest a climate change bill would have a chance, and possibly it wouldn’t even get through then. In the coming national elections the Republicans could take six seats away from the Democrats’ 59-vote Senate majority. In the House Republicans need to gain 41 seats to take control, and Means rates their chances of doing that at about 50-50. “It’s going to be close.”
And it’s not likely a stand-alone energy bill will get through the Congress this year, according to Means who spent a number of years in senior staff positions on Capitol Hill. For one thing there are only 65 days left on the congressional calendar before members take off to campaign in earnest. The Congress needs to finish financial reform, possibly within two weeks, and then the debate over the new Supreme Court nominee is likely to tie up the Senate.
The other reason has to do with coalitions. The folks pushing for cap-and-trade and other more environmentally focused items need the votes of those supporting broader energy changes to get their legislation through. They aren’t likely to support advance passage of a separate energy bill, because then “you let Democrats off the hook on environmental items for the next 20 years,” Means said.
He advised PGC members that if they want to get their Natural Gas Act Section 5 reform measure through this year they would do well to get it attached to the oil spill liability bill or a tax extender bill. The Alpine Group principal assists a variety of clients in numerous areas in Washington including energy and environment, Internet gaming, transportation, tax and trade and other issues.
As for the future of cap-and-trade down the road: “cap, yes; possibly not trade anymore,” Means said. Discussion seems to be going more toward a cap-and-dividend system, but it may take at least three years to work that out.
Means said he thought President Obama might even see it as an advantage to him if the Republicans take control of the House in the November elections. He will have gotten through two major pieces of legislation, health care and financial reform in his first two years, and with Republicans running the House Obama would have a ready excuse if other Democratic measures didn’t get through.
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