Lessons from the climate fight: determined ignorance in the Senate
As I wrote yesterday, the real revelation of Ryan Lizza’s great New Yorker piece on the climate fight in the Senate is how deep the rot has gone in that institution. One aspect of Senate dysfunction that deserves emphasis is the degree to which policy is made out of ignorance.
Americans tend to envision corrupt government elites as all-knowing, all-seeing evildoers. That’s how government corruption tends to be portrayed in popular media — think every Secret Government Agency in every TV show ever. They know more than us and they’re using their knowledge to achieve their nefarious ends.
The truth, which becomes more and more apparent the closer one gets to centers of power, is that decisionmakers are often woefully uninformed. I was talking once with a staffer for a senator who was in the middle of the climate fight. “When I first got here, I was like everyone else,” he said, “wondering how much was malice and how much was ignorance. The longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve concluded it’s ignorance.” That fact is, he said, most senators, even the ones directly involved in the fight over climate policy, don’t know the rudimentary facts about climate change or clean energy. They understand very little about the policies in question or how those policies will affect their constituents. They know virtually nothing about the climate bill that came out of the House. Anybody with an RSS reader can quickly become more expert on these hugely consequential issues than the average senator.
As George Packer’s superb piece on the Senate (also in The New Yorker) makes clear, senators just don’t have time to study the issues much any more. They spend the bulk of their time fundraising and their working days are divided into frenetic 15-minute chunks. They operate on half-day news cycles, their offices fed a steady diet of cable news and Politico-style scorekeeping. The Beltway’s center-right conventional wisdom is all they’ve got; they don’t have time to dig deeper.
This passage from Lizza’s story jumped out at me:
On October 28, 2009, Graham was eating dinner at the Capital Grille, an expense-account steakhouse on Pennsylvania Avenue, with Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Rick Davis, a Republican consultant who had managed McCain’s two Presidential campaigns. …
Graham came to the issue strictly as a dealmaker. He saw the Democrats’ interest in capping carbon emissions as an opportunity to boost the nuclear industry and to expand oil drilling. But now Krupp explained the basics of global-warming science and policy: how carbon trading worked, how farmers could use offsets to earn an income from growing trees, and how different lobbyists would affect the debate. Krupp told Graham that the crucial feature of the policy was the hard cap on emissions. The House bill required American carbon emissions to be seventeen per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. As long as that number held, environmentalists would show flexibility on most other issues. The dinner lasted three hours. The next day, Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman held their first meeting as the triumvirate that became known to everyone following the debate as K.G.L.
Think about it: here’s a U.S. senator, a Republican, on the verge of an incredibly high-stakes gambit, betting his career on climate legislation his party opposes. And only on the night before he does it does he get around to actually learning how the policy will work, what interest groups are involved, what the goal is. And even then, the only source of knowledge he trusts is a fellow old rich white guy. (No offense to the very necessary Fred Krupp.)
That’s what it takes to get a senator to actually learn about the policies under consideration in his own institution: a career on the line and less than 24 hours left before a decision must be made. It’s like a procrastinating college student, only with vast power over the nation’s future.
Now imagine all those other Republicans. You think they know anything about cap-and-trade more than what the Heritage Foundation fed to their staffers? Go back and listen to some of the many hearings Congress had on this stuff over the last few years. The Republicans’ ignorance is aggressive, purposeful, and thoroughgoing. It’s strategic.
And it’s not just Republicans. Conservative Midwestern Dems are no better. Here’s another bit from the story:
When [Lieberman] went to lobby Evan Bayh, of Indiana, Bayh held up a map of the United States showing, in varying shades of red, the percentage of electricity that each state derived from burning coal, the main source of greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States. The more coal used, the redder the state and the more it would be affected by a cap on carbon. The Northeast, the West Coast, and the upper Northwest of the country were pale. But the broad middle of the country—Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois—was crimson. (Indiana, for example, derives ninety-four per cent of its electricity from coal). “Every time Senator Lieberman would open his mouth, Bayh would show him the map,” a Lieberman aide said.
That map is the beginning and end of Bayh’s knowledge of climate policy. “We burn coal, you no pass!” And Bayh managed to preserve that minimal level of understanding throughout the entire debate, which extends back to the beginning of his worthless Senate career in 1998.
As it happens, extraordinary measures were taken in every iteration of the climate bill to protect Midwestern coal states: free pollution permits, consumer rebates sufficient to make the working and middle class whole, massive subsidies for CCS development, support for trade-exposed industries, pork for nuclear, on and on. The architects of climate legislation went to almost comic lengths to accommodate the substantive concerns of coal state senators. Coal utilities supported the damn bill!
And it made no difference. None. It didn’t change the tone or substance of the conversation in the Senate one iota. Bayh knows as little about it today as he did the day he won his daddy’s seat. Same with Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). They don’t lift a finger to learn more because learning more would just complicate matters. They’ve found a politically safe position and dug in, dumb as a box of hair and proud of it.