Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) is fiscally responsible, a “deficit hawk” as they say in the biz, and like most people who self-identify with that label in Washington, he’s very keen for everyone to know it. Back in September 2009, he urged President Obama to focus on reducing the deficit — indeed, said it should be the Dems’ top priority:

The budget deficits are unsustainable, and the top priority for the President and the Congress must be to develop a strategy that will step us back from the increased federal debt that could undermine our economic future.

Top priority. Got it.

Fast forward to 2010. Right now, the Senate is getting ready to grapple with a climate/energy bill. There are two broad options on the table:

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  • A comprehensive climate and energy bill with some form of carbon pricing (to be determined); or
  • an “energy-only” bill modeled on the one passed by the Senate Energy Committee last year.

Here’s the difference between the two: the former spends lots of money on long overdue clean energy initiatives and pays for it; the latter spends lots of money on long overdue clean energy initiatives and doesn’t pay for it. Consequently, the former is likely to reduce the deficit and the latter is likely to raise it.

Guess which one Byron “Deficit Hawk” Dorgan supports? Yup: the deficit-busting energy-only bill.

This particular brand of hypocrisy isn’t limited to Dorgan. In fact, the voices in the Senate speaking out loudest against carbon pricing — the mechanism that pays for the energy bill — are the ones most identified with fiscal responsibility. (See: Mary Landrieu.)

You could see this one of two ways. Perhaps it shows that deficit hawks are hypocrites who dodge tough choices — they’re “deficit peacocks,” as the Center for American Progress puts it. Or perhaps it shows that U.S. senators don’t have a very good grasp on what cap-and-trade is, or how it works. Or maybe both!

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Regardless, I don’t understand why this isn’t a bigger deal. Why don’t D.C. journos ever ask deficit hawks why they prefer energy policy that raises rather than reduces the deficit? I’ve literally never seen a lawmaker asked this question.

Next time I get the chance, I’ll do it!


The numbers

The nonpartisan CBO scored the Kerry-Boxer bill (modeled on the House bill, ACES), which passed the Senate Environment Committee last year. Result? It would reduce the deficit by $21 billion a year.

The CBO also scored (PDF) the energy-only bill Dorgan wants, the American Clean Energy Leadership Act. Result? It would increase the deficit by $13 billion a year.

Now, admittedly, no one’s quite sure what Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman are going to come up with. As of now it sounds like some kind of unholy hybrid, but it does contain carbon pricing mechanisms, so whatever its cost, it will be less than an energy-only bill with no revenue raising mechanism.

(More here: Good climate policy is responsible fiscal policy.)