Even though Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) decided to soften the terms of their climate bill last week, the document may go down in history as one of the hardest-hitting gambits in the U.S. fight against global warming. In fact, easing the demands of the bill — which proposes a mandatory cap on greenhouse-gas emissions from the energy, industrial, commercial, and transportation sectors — may mean it will pack more of a punch in the long run. Why? Because all of the senators who vote against it (likely to be a majority, unfortunately) will seem that much more unreasonable.

Lieberman and McCain take a softer touch.

Photo: U.S. Senate.

“Obviously, when we were considering this bill at the outset — and even now [with the revisions] — it’s not something we expected or expect to pass,” said Casey Aden-Wansbury, Lieberman’s press secretary. “We see this as the opening step. We’re going to put it out there, we’re going to have senators take a stand on it and see who supports it and where we need to work on building support. It’s the beginning of the process.”

If it seems absurd that this many years into the climate change debate, we’re at “the beginning of the process,” recollect that, as Aden-Wansbury pointed out, the president of the United States and most of the Republican leaders in Congress have flat-out denied that global warming is happening. (“Catastrophic climate change is a hoax! It’s a [delusion] of the adrift Chicken Little crowd,” declared Sen. James Inhofe [R-Okla.], chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, during climate change hearings this summer.) Add to that the current economic slump and shrill complaints from industry that controlling climate change will require huge expenditures on its part, and it goes without saying that we’re far from establishing a mandatory cap on carbon dioxide emissions.

It’s almost hard to believe, given this political climate, that Republicans would even allow the McCain-Lieberman bill to make its way to the Senate floor — and according to Aden-Wansbury, some did their damnedest to stop it. “First we tried to attach it to the energy bill, but that didn’t work. Then Sen. Inhofe refused to take up our bill or bring it up for a markup or hold any hearings on it” in his committee. Ultimately, McCain was able to usher it through the Commerce Committee, which he chairs, and then negotiate a deal with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to have a yea-or-nay floor vote on the bill with a limited-time debate. That vote is likely to occur at the end of October. “We’re just excited that we get the chance to have the vote,” said Aden-Wansbury, “and senators will, once and for all, be forced to put themselves on record as to where they stand on climate change.”

Senators who cast a “nay” vote should feel an added twinge of humiliation in light of a recent report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, which shows that the economic impact of the bill will be slight to negligible: If we reduced CO2 emissions to 2000 levels by 2010, as the bill proposes, the costs passed on to consumers by industry would be, on average, a grand total of $20 a year per American family, according to the study. How’s that for a bargain-basement solution to the defining environmental crisis of our time?

Shrouded in Secrecy

Notwithstanding Inhofe’s appalling attitude about climate change and environmental protection in general, he can’t hold a candle to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who is orchestrating possibly the biggest congressional snow job on energy policy in recent history.

Norm!

Photo: U.S. Senate.

It all started several weeks ago, when Domenici inserted an obscure provision into the energy bill (now in conference committee) that would provide a whopping $800 million in federal loan guarantees to build a power plant — and boost employment — in one of Minnesota’s poorest regions. The provision is a big juicy carrot to lure the state’s Republican senator, Norm Coleman, into overcoming his opposition to drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Domenici also tempted Coleman with tax credits for biodiesel fuel made from Minnesota soybeans and a requirement that gasoline refiners use more corn-based ethanol. “It would be very hard to walk away from an energy bill [that included these measures], no matter what else was in it,” Coleman admitted to the Washington Post in a Sept. 28 article.

Domenici and fellow committee Republicans didn’t stop there. “They are doing all they can to give goodies to whoever they can to try and lock in their votes. They are going to members and saying, ‘What do you want? What can we give you?’” said Bill Wicker, communications director for the Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “They’ve tried to pick off Norm Coleman’s vote, but they’ve also [thrown bones] to senators in Alaska, Wyoming, and elsewhere to buy their votes too.”

Somewhere over the rainbow:
the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wicker said that Domenici’s staff has been keeping an official tally of all the incentives that fellow senators want in order to vote for the energy bill, and they’re quickly ticking them off. That list is not something that Democratic members of the committee are privy to, but it is rumored to cover a staggeringly broad array of energy issues, from ethanol incentives for corn states to relaxed policies on offshore oil drilling for costal states.

“We can’t tell you exactly what’s been going on because we’ve been almost entirely shut out of the conference process,” said one Democratic committee staff member who wishes to remain anonymous. “We’ve seen very little information on how they are rewriting this bill. The few snippets we have seen contain totally new elements that were neither in the original Senate bill nor the House bill. Obviously those of us in the dark don’t feel very comfortable about it all.”

Not least perturbed is Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), former chair of the Energy Committee and currently the ranking minority member, who recently wrote a letter to Domenici excoriating him for shutting out the Democrats — an exclusion which he says never happened to Republicans when Senate Democrats were in power: “I am deeply disappointed that the courtesy and cooperation in conference afforded by me … when Republicans were in the minority is not being reciprocated,” wrote Bingaman.

Wicker added that he has never before seen this kind of political secrecy on energy policies. “Closed conferences are not unprecedented in Congress, but they’ve never happened with regard to a major piece of energy legislation,” he said. “Then again, why should we be surprised? It’s just how the Cheney Task Force worked: shrouded in secrecy.”

Calling All Muckrakers!

Since this column debuted more than a month ago, we’ve been getting a steady stream of helpful tips, for which we are very grateful. But when it comes to muckraking, more is always better. Although we try to keep our eyes peeled and our ears to the ground (a real physiognomic challenge), this column depends on having sources everywhere, including in the form of our own dedicated readers. So please, keep those tips rolling in.

While we’re at it, now is a fine time to share a little history on the term “muckraker,” which debuted long before the column itself — to be precise, in John Bunyan’s 1684 Pilgrim’s Progress, that old snore of a volume that English majors are forced to endure to this day. Bunyan’s muckraker — a man so absorbed in the stable filth he was raking that he never looked up to see the crown he was offered by the heavens — is not exactly the kind we want to emulate.

In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt revived the term to describe the investigative journalists of his day — such as Lincoln Steffens, who brought to light government corruption, and Ida Tarbell, who exposed the malpractice behind the meteoric rise of Standard Oil. We at Grist want to uphold that Tarbellian tenacity. So if you have any insights on developments in environmental policy and the people behind them, please don’t hesitate to send them in to muckraker@grist.org.