Julia BoveyThe following is a guest essay from Julia Bovey, federal communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council and blogger at NRDC’s Switchboard.


When I left my native Boston for Washington, D.C., I bought several new things, including navy-blue closed-toed pumps and a copy of Congress for Dummies. While more women than I was led to believe wear open-toes in the Capitol, I have been making excellent use of Congress for Dummies as I try to interpret what the heck is going on with the energy bill up there.

To refresh, both the House and the Senate passed pretty good energy bills. The Senate voted to require new cars sold here in the U.S. to go farther on a gallon of gas — 35 miles per gallon by 2020 (on average). That move was celebrated by environmentalists, but while we were popping corks, automakers wasted no time lobbying the House to get CAFE standards out of its version.

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On the flip side, the Senate’s version left out a crucial measure. The renewable energy standard, which would allow Americans get 15 percent of our energy from renewable sources like wind and solar, only got 57 votes, not the 60 it would have taken to overcome the threatened Republican filibuster and get it to a vote. The RES did, however, make it into the House bill.

There are other differences in the bills, but those are the ones to watch.

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So what’s the next step when you have two similar-but-not-identical bills?

According to Congress for Dummies, there are three options: one chamber can yield and accept the other’s version, the House and Senate can keep sending the bill back and fourth until they get a version they can agree on (a so-called ping pong), or the bill can go to conference.

Many people — especially reporters who write about these things — assumed there would be a conference committee on the energy bill. There was all sorts of maneuvering over how to get a spot on it and how to deal with the staunchly anti-35-mpg-by-2020 Rep. John Dingell, who as chairman of the energy committee would certainly be a conferee.

Now Republicans are refusing to permit a conference, at least for the time being. So what’s happening on the Hill — which inconveniently is not mentioned in Congress for Dummies, much like fact that it’s OK to wear sandals there —  is what we’re calling pre-conference, or if you prefer, an unofficial conference. A conference by any other name smells as sweet: What’s happening is the same thing that would happen in a conference. Leaders are hammering out a bill the House and Senate can agree on, preferably one that will pass and still, you know, be good.

Still, don’t write off conference completely. Once the pre-conference conferencing is finished, there’s nothing to prevent the Republicans from agreeing to a real conference conference after all.

Another option: the identical House and Senate bills that come out of unofficial conference go back to their chambers for another vote.

The real point here is, it doesn’t matter. In 20 years, when we’re driving cleaner cars, burning less gas, creating less global warming pollution, will we care whether our good fortune came out of pre-conference or conference? I think not.

The real battle is political. It’s over the content of the bill, not the process.

Key issues to watch — besides clean cars and renewable energy, which are the bread and butter — are whether the Senate version will let go of the absurd loan guarantees to the nuclear industry for 100 percent of new construction, and whether the House will be able to hold on to its measure repealing $16 billion in tax breaks to Big Oil.

Stay tuned.