Muckraker: Grist on Politics

With more than a month yet to go before the new Congress is officially sworn in (and the old Congress still kicking around in lame duck session), some wonk-types were on the Hill today trying to stir up support for a carbon tax.

Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who last year introduced a carbon tax bill in the House, was the only member of Congress at the hearing (or at least the only one who made himself known). He’s also the newly-elected chairman of the Democratic Caucus, which means he’ll likely have more sway next Congress.

Larson says he still thinks a carbon tax is the way to go, even if people recoil at the idea of a “tax,” and he’s bullish about the prospects. “The reaction to my bill was that it’s a good idea, but it’s a tax,” said Larson. “And ‘tax’, as you know, around Washington is a dirty word.”

But, he said, the financial situation — and the market failures that precipitated it — might actually help the cause. “I believe that the tables have turned,” he continued. “Today people are more leery of markets than they are of taxes.”

He argued that a carbon tax is a much more honest way to price carbon. “One of the things about the American public is that we have to level with them, tell them truth,” he said, adding that he thinks the tax code is the most transparent and efficient way to price carbon.

His bill called for starting tax of $15 a ton of carbon, rising 10 percent each year thereafter. It also called for the creation of an “Energy Security Trust Fund” to administer the billions of dollars in revenue, directing it to clean energy sources, transition assistance, a cut in the payroll tax, and $10 billion in tax credits for R&D of new technologies. He cited at least 12 supporters in the House — including three members of Democratic leadership and three members of the Ways & Means Committee — as agreeing with the proposal.

Officially on board: Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Sam Farr (D-Calif.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Nita Lowey (D-NY), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), James McGovern (D-Mass.), George Miller (D-Calif.), James Moran (D-Va.) Pete Stark (D-Calif.), and Edolphus Towns (D-NY).

Today’s briefing — sponsored by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, the Carbon Tax Center, the Climate Crisis Coalition, Friends Committee on National Legislation and Friends of the Earth — featured only folks who like the idea and a largely supportive crowd, so it didn’t give a whole lot of insight into the reception the idea might get in the Capitol these days. Also on the panel, which was moderated by Friends of the Earth president Brent Blackwelder, were Goddard Institute of Space Studies director James Hansen, David Suzuki Foundation chair and British Columbia Public Affairs adviser James Hoggan, Tufts University economics professor Gilbert Metcalf, and former Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs Robert Shapiro.

“Taxes are something the environmental community shouldn’t run away from,” said Blackwelder. “We ought to be rewarding the good and taxing the bad.”

The economists on the panel emphasized that it would be more efficient and easily implemented than a cap-and-trade scheme. “It’s a cost-effective way to achieve environmental goals,” said Metcalf.

Shapiro struck a more urgent tone: “I think we only get one shot at this. Whatever system we put in place, we’re going to be stuck with it for some time. And if it fails, it’s going to be difficult to come back to it,” he said. “The problem with cap-and-trade is I think it’s going to fail.”