Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Since he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1987, Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has been active on issues such as health care and retirement security. But since making the leap to the Senate less than two years ago, Cardin has emerged as a leader on some of the most nuts-and-bolts elements of policy to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions: energy efficiency and transit.

Ben Cardin

Ben Cardin.

His most recent accomplishment was securing $171 billion for mass transit in the Climate Security Act, the cap-and-trade legislation that failed in the Senate in early June. Cardin was the leading proponent of more funds for public transit throughout the debate over the bill. The set-aside would have directed additional funds to states and localities for public transit nationwide, and helped improve and create new mass transit systems.

One of his first actions in the Senate was to author a bill to allot additional federal funds for maintaining and improving the Metro transit system in Washington, D.C. Cardin was also a cosponsor of the Consumer First Energy Act, a bill that suffered the same fate as the climate bill this year, but would have levied a 25 percent tax on “windfall profits” of major oil companies. It was Cardin who offered an amendment to the CLEAN Energy Act that the Senate passed last year, which creates a bipartisan National Commission on Energy Independence. And he’s introduced the American Green Building Act, a bill to require all new federal buildings to meet at least Leadership and Energy in Environmental Design silver standards.

Grist caught up with Sen. Cardin recently to talk about transit policy and what Congress should be doing to both get people out of their cars and reduce the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

Grist: For you, what is the takeaway from the debate this year about the Climate Security Act?

Sen. Cardin: This is not a problem that we can’t deal with. We can deal with it. Not only can we afford to deal with it, it may very well help us economically if we get it done in the right way. To me, it’s exciting to see that at the end of the day, we could have a much better public transportation system in this country, which will not only be good for the environment, but it will be good on our stress and our quality of life, and livable communities, and all those other things that will make life happier for people. We can use alternative fuels so that you have predictable energy costs. You don’t have to go through the stress that we’ve had over the last six months with energy costs spiking. We can use our military in a more sensible way if we don’t have to [use] oil. To me, there are so many positive impacts by being friendly to our environment.

Grist: What would you do differently next year when climate legislation is brought up again?

Sen. Cardin: There is a broad consensus forming. To have 54 U.S. Senators express support for the concept of a cap on carbon emissions and a cap-and-trade system to me is encouraging. If we have leadership in the White House that really pushes this and we can pick up a few more friendly votes, I think we’re at the point where we can pass and enact major legislation.

I think what we learned is that we have to listen. We can’t just say we’re going to do it our way, we know our way is right. We’ve learned that a compromise can be OK, as long as you don’t compromise your principles. The second point is that you really need to be soundly based in good science. You need to make sure that what we’re doing is scientifically sound. I go to corn-based ethanol as an example. We all felt that was clearly a good policy while we moved forward with ethanol. We now know that there were consequences that we should have anticipated.

Grist: What about lessons on working with folks like Sherrod Brown and other Rust-Belt energy state legislators? What do we need to do differently in the future to make sure we bring them along in the conversation?

Sen. Cardin: Let me take it first from the positive side: There were very few people who came from the Rust Belt on the Democratic side that voted “no” on the bill. Many senators — including this senator — represent large industrial states. There are many companies in Maryland that could take the position, since their product is made with a lot of carbon, that they would be opposed to this legislation. Yet that didn’t turn into their United States senator voting “no.” I think the positive news is that most of the senators understood that this is going to be good for out country, including traditional industries. I guess in Sherrod’s case we just were not successful in making the point.

I think the point is that we are trying to make is that this bill provides significant financial assistance to traditional industries. Secondly, we had a strong provision in this bill to establish an international level playing field. I think that we need to stress that more and perhaps put additional safety nets in here to deal with workers or companies that might have more difficulty that we anticipate.

Grist: You authored the transit portion of the Climate Security Act. Clearly this is a priority issue for you. What role do you think transit policy should play in climate legislation?

Sen. Cardin: A huge part. [The transit portion called for] $171 billion over the life of the bill. That’s big money. That can make a major impact. It can make a huge difference in the capacity for transit programs. We are in desperate need of significant transit improvements. We’ve got to have the facilities and we don’t today, and then we need the fare-box and economic policies that reward people for taking public transportation. Some try to say that it should be “self-sufficient” or have a certain percentage return through the fare-box. We don’t do that on our roads, and public transportation is much better for so many reasons — not just the environment or the quality of life. We should be providing much stronger incentives for people to use public transportation, but first you need to have the facilities.

I’m a big, big supporter of dramatic change in public transportation. It includes more than just the bus and rail systems in our urban areas. It includes a commuter rail and inner-city rail — the whole gamut of services that get people out of their personal vehicles. I don’t want people driving their personal vehicles the way they are today.

Grist: In addition to this kind of infrastructure improvement, what other actions should Congress be taking to encourage better mass transit and more use? You also mentioned that we have become a “car culture” — how can we influence that on a federal level?

Sen. Cardin: It starts with service. You have to have economical, convenient, mass transit service. At the national level there are interstate areas that the federal government needs to do a much more effective job on Amtrak and passenger rail. We know about all the controversy surrounding that. Everybody looks at the bottom-line. We shouldn’t be looking at the bottom-line. We should be looking at whether adequate passenger rail service in this country so people have alternatives to using their cars. We don’t have that today.

I would make the Northeast corridor much more convenient, much better serviced, and more reasonable. There are people who literally can’t afford to use the corridor because it’s so expensive on a train, even though in reality it’s less expensive then driving your car. But it still could be made more convenient to get people out of passenger cars.

Grist: You were also a cosponsor of the Consumer First Energy Act, which, like the climate bill, got filibustered this year. It seems like we’re in a deadlock in Congress on energy policy. Do you see possibility for us breaking this deadlock anytime soon?

Sen. Cardin: I don’t know. The Republicans have a different approach. They are very much interested in protecting the status quo as far as the oil industry is concerned. I think that’s regrettable. They have the votes to stop action in the United States Senate. To date, it looks like they’re prepared to exercise that veto and to use the filibuster to prevent a change in the status quo.

Grist: You also sponsored the Energy Independence Act. What do you see as the primary objectives that we should be setting now for these long-term goals in energy policy to move towards independence?

Sen. Cardin: Well, the key is alternative energy sources. We need to do a much better job with solar, wind, biofuels and hydropower. The easy part in energy policy is to use less energy that means the efficiency of our automobiles, the efficiency of our buildings, and using alternative transportation systems such as public transit. All of that means less energy use. It’s a combination — the key is a combination — of much more aggressive approach to renewable and the better efficiencies of the use of energy.

Embedded in that is a real commitment to research to try to figure out ways to get the next generation in fuels. There’s some promising research being done on hydrogen fuels, but we’re not there yet. We need to put the research into that to see whether that will work ultimately. We have good research-base now on other types of grain fuels other than corn. Those are issues that need real priorities in an energy policy.

Grist: What do you think should be the top three environmental priorities for the Senate next year?

Sen. Cardin: Absolutely, global climate change, first, second, and third. No other environmental issue is anywhere near as critically important for our planet than a global climate change bill. Nothing else even comes close. There are other issues; we’ve got the Clean Water Act we might be able to get back to. We have [to set] energy policy for this country, and I think [a bill on] global climate change moves us in that direction. There are other issues we should deal with, but to me the most important priority should be global climate change.