There are some gloomy reactions to the Waxman/Markey bill around the interwebs — see, for instance, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, and Brad Plumer. I’m not going to claim the bill is perfect, but I think the pessimism is excessive.
It comes down to this: these guys are focusing too much on the carbon cap portion of the bill, which is only one of four major provisions. First off, this is a messaging disaster — Dems on the Hill are begging me to stop talking so much about “cap-and-trade,” which means nothing to the public and is unpopular to the extent anyone understands it. They want the focus on clean energy, efficiency, and jobs, which are dealt with more in the other parts of the bill.
More substantively, focusing unduly on the carbon part of the bill makes the bill’s flaws look bigger and more consequential than they really are. (Though, again, I acknowledge that there are serious flaws.) Some of the flaws in the carbon part, many necessary concessions to political reality, are compensated in part by other parts.
It’s important to remember that Henry Waxman is, by virtually universal acclaim, one of the smartest and most savvy legislators in Congress. He knows the limits of the possible and the art of the deal. He’s also one of the greenest, sponsor of 2007’s ambitious Safe Climate Act. Same goes for Markey: he knows the legislative terrain around these issues better than anybody, having focused intently on them via his select committee for the last two years.
So these guys are trying to build the strongest possible bill that can still garner majority support.
Two of the bill’s big flaws can be seen in that light: the silence on permit allocations and the high number (some two billion tons) of offsets allowed to meet targets.
People are wildly overreacting on allocations. It’s not like auctioning permits is off the table — or would have been set in stone if they’d put it in the discussion draft. They’re leaving it to committee discussion, so that some of the more skittish members can feel like they’re involved and invested in the final product. I’m sure it will be some mix of auction and free allocation in the end, which is inevitable no matter what Waxman and Markey say.
The offsets, yes, are legitimately awful. A new report from PointCarbon says there’s no way the domestic offset market can even supply enough to satisfy the bill’s requirements. But this, too, was a big concession to legislators who worry about costs.
The worry with allowing too many offsets is that short-term action can be delayed. But that’s precisely what the energy and grid portions of the bill are designed to avoid. They are designed to create an immediate market driver for renewables, and to put together the infrastructure to enable them.
The worry with giving away permits is that energy prices will rise and hurt vulnerable families. But that’s exactly what the efficiency portion of the bill is designed to avoid — efficiency lowers energy bills even as energy costs rise.
Like everyone else I’m still digesting the bill, but it looks to me like Waxman and Markey have been fairly savvy about accomplishing via other parts of the bill what can not (yet) be accomplished by the carbon part, at least to some extent. In a sense, it’s almost smarter politically to get greens howling about the carbon portion, since it distracts attention from the fact that the energy portions will compel enormous short-term action.