Rep. Tom Perriello won one of the most celebrated upsets of 2008, narrowly defeating incumbent Republican Virgil Goode to represent Virginia’s 5th District, an historically red district that Obama lost by 2.5 percent. Since then he has voted against the Democrats on a few high-profile issues — he voted against Obama’s budget — but with them on the biggest ones: the stimulus bill, the health-care reform bill, and the American Clean Energy & Security Act (ACES), also known as the Waxman-Markey bill.
Conventional wisdom says that those votes have left Perriello highly vulnerable in 2010 — he’s on the Rothenberg Report’s “Dangerous Dozen” list — but the latest polling shows him neck-and-neck with likely opponent Robert Hurt. (Tea Party types unhappy with Hurt are reportedly encouraging Goode to jump in the race as an Independent, which could split the conservative vote.) The way Perriello sees it, voters respect him for doing what he thinks is right and standing behind it, even when they disagree. As I discovered when I talked to him on Tuesday, his alleged vulnerability has done nothing to suppress his fighting spirit.
Q. If it came to the floor today, would you vote for ACES again?
A. I would vote for any aggressive energy-independence effort. This is the challenge of our time — the jobs opportunity, the national security challenge, the scientific challenge of our era. Any plan that uses market forces to signal a carbon-constrained environment is going to move us in the right direction. People who don’t support this kind of aggressive energy independence are just selling Americans short.
Q. Nothing has changed your mind since that original vote?
A. Well, I always preferred a tax shift with a major reimbursement on payroll taxes as a cleaner and clearer way to do it. I think there are plenty of better ways we could have written the bill. But you show me a way to get to 218 [votes] on a victory for America’s energy independence and national security and I’ll be there.
Q. There’s been some criticism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for holding the vote on ACES so early in the session, before the Senate had its ducks in a row. Do you think that was the right decision?
A. If we were going to wait for the Senate to do anything, we would do nothing. This stuff should have been done 10 to 20 years ago. We’re so far behind China, Europe, and other areas in the energy jobs of the future because neither party has had the guts to take this on. There are so many spineless people in D.C. To me, the new politics — “change we can believe in” — was about starting with what would solve our problems, not what would get us reelected. Whether you do it early or late is not the issue. The issue is, is this going to make America more competitive and safer? I think it will.
Q. If the bill went through the Senate as fast as it went through the House, Democrats would be touting their victory. Instead, Democrats who voted for it in the House have the vote to defend but no victory to point to. They’ve kind of been left hanging. Is there anger in the House toward the Senate right now?
A. That’s insider baseball stuff. The American people respect results: they want jobs, they want the country to be safer. The House has produced a historic agenda in that regard, and the Senate hasn’t. But it’s not about pointing fingers; it’s about getting it done.
One of the reasons why it made sense to move quickly is there’s a tremendous amount of capital on Wall Street and elsewhere waiting to invest in energy. When I talk to investors, they say, “We need predictability.” Whether it’s financial regs or energy independence or the jobs bill, they’re saying, “Look, if you tell us what the rules are going to be, we’ll go do what we do best, which is create jobs and make profits. But we can’t do that until you act.” So it’s less important to get some hypothetically perfect rules than to create the certainty that allows investors and innovators to move forward.
Every week the Senate doesn’t act, it either freezes that investment and innovation or it sends it overseas. We’re giving up jobs. The Senate — the ridiculous tactics of the Republicans and the timidity of the Democrats — is standing in the way of the kind of job creation we need.
Q. Back in October, Sen. Lindsey Graham [R-S.C.] — who’s now helping to craft a climate and energy bill in the Senate — said, “What I’m trying to do is make sure the Waxman-Markey bill from the House is dead.” ACES seems to have gotten a reputation as a wildly liberal bill. Do you think that’s accurate? If not, why do you think that House Dems have so lost the messaging battle?
A. Keep in mind that cap-and-trade is a Republican idea. It was a good idea when the Republicans came up with it and it continues to be when Democrats support it. It’s a good idea because it uses capitalism to solve a core problem. When Republicans are honest with themselves — many of them come up to me and say, “Look, I’d love to support it, I know this is the right approach, but if I do this I’ll have a primary challenger tomorrow.” That’s not conviction politics. That’s spinelessness. There’s a lot of posturing that goes on up here.
[ACES] is actually a very gradual phase-in; it’s low caps; it’s generous support to the utilities, which frankly I would have liked see go to consumers. Unfortunately, good ideas, ideas that could save our country, sometimes take 30 minutes to explain and only 30 seconds to demagogue. In between those two things is leadership, and we haven’t had the moral courage to take this on.
The people in the House who stood up and said, “Hey, this is what’s right for our country”–that’s the leadership people want. That’s why, if you look in a district like mine that you would think would be a disaster, it’s actually been a positive. The people respect the conviction of it. We’re making the [clean] energy economy real in southern Virginia. We have our dairy farmers and poultry farmers in on it. We have our municipal electric utilities part of it. We have small businesses that are headed to the next big car, the big battery–this is what we do better than anyone else.
True bipartisanship in Washington is bipartisan support for bailing out failure in Wall Street instead of standing up for workers and innovation. Cap-and-trade was a real shock to the Washington insider system that’s used to being able to block anything that challenges the status quo. We’ve seen the full weight of corporate capture of government, its ability to buy its way into a message victory.
Q. One of the options being floated in the Senate is to strip the cap-and-trade part out and pass an energy-only bill. If a bill like that came back to the House, do you think it could get through?
A. That’s more insider baseball crap. I don’t really care. I’m sick of starting with what can we get through the Senate; let’s start with what solves the damn problem. Until the Senate gets its head out of its rear-end and starts to see the crisis we’re in, our country is literally at risk. Our economy is at risk, because these jobs are being created overseas. It should have the same urgency with this problem that it had bailing out Wall Street.
We are swearing an oath to do what’s necessary to protect this country, not do what’s necessary to get a bill through the Senate. If you look at what voters were upset with on the health-care bill, it was all the carve-outs and exemptions and watering it down. Voters are smart; they know that the House bill stood up to the health insurance companies and the Senate bill didn’t. The same thing is true here: If they respect that the bill is actually going to transform our economy, make us more competitive and more independent, they’ll support it. If it seems like it’s just a sell-out to the big donors from the oil and gas companies, they won’t support it.
That’s the question that we should be asking: Does this solve the problem? Is this a solution worthy of the American people? And if it is, then great; let’s move forward with it.
Read more interviews with members of Congress:
- Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.)
- Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.)
- Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)
- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)