Muckraker: Grist on Politics

A year ago, the policy wonks at the Center for American Progress laid out a plan for what they’d like to see the next president do on a variety of issues, including energy and climate change [PDF]. The plan includes a proposal to create a National Energy Council, headed by a national energy adviser at the Cabinet level (as David mentioned previously).

The energy component of CAP’s plan — “Capturing the Energy Opportunity” — was put together by CAP president and founder John Podesta and senior fellows Kit Batten and Todd Stern. It will be included in the new book that CAP Action Fund is releasing today, Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President.

With Podesta heading President-elect Obama’s transition team, there’s a good chance that parts of this “blueprint” will be put to use. CAP hasn’t been shy about calling itself the “government in waiting” for the Obama administration. Politico has even speculated that Podesta is eyeing the national energy adviser position for himself.

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CAP’s energy plan calls for the president to promise on Inauguration Day to convene the National Energy Council personally each quarter for the first year. The council’s first task, CAP says, “should be to support the president in preparing energy legislation for delivery to Capitol Hill within 60 days of the inauguration.” And within 120 days, CAP would like to see the council advise the president on an enhanced research-and-development program and an international agenda for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions.

“The Council’s mission will be to coordinate the relevant policy of all the agencies of the federal government, outreach with states, localities, and the private sector, and U.S. leadership and partnership in international efforts to reduce global emissions,” CAP writes.

Dan Weiss, director of climate strategy at the CAP Action Fund, says the council would be based on the model of the National Economic Council, which Bill Clinton created via executive order in 1993. It would bring together top officials from relevant agencies — the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Agriculture, the Council on Environmental Quality — as well as leaders from the National Economic Council and the National Security Council, in the interest of coordinating work on energy and climate issues.

Batten, who coauthored the proposal, said that rather than making rules on its own, the body would serve a coordinating function. “The agencies would retain their authorities, but this is a place where the policy decisions can be discussed,” she said.

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“Each of the groups that would be engaged in the National Energy Council kind of have a different part of energy and climate change under their purview, and those roles are all going to be extremely important going forward, so this council is a way to try to unite all these different various parts of the executive branch of government so that this issue can be treated in a way that it really needs to be,” she continued. “Each of these bodies brings together different strengths, different mandates, and different purviews. This is a way to get them all working together.”

The council would also “work on Capital Hill coordinating any legislative proposals,” said Weiss, noting as a possible example the idea of putting a green component in an upcoming economic-stimulus package. “The National Energy Council would coordinate that discussion and take ideas from all the agencies and put it into a package,” said Weiss.

As a Cabinet member, the council’s adviser (or “czar,” if you prefer) would have regular, direct contact with the president, advising him on both energy and climate issues. Weiss notes that the person tapped to head the council would ideally “be a prominent person that has experience bringing agencies together.”

Some have wondered why the next president might not just empower the White House Council on Environmental Quality to take up this work. The CEQ “coordinates federal environmental efforts and works closely with agencies and other White House offices in the development of environmental policies and initiatives,” and the council’s chair is supposedly “serves as the principal environmental policy adviser to the President.” While the CEQ has languished under Bush for the past eight years, it could be given a lot of latitude under Obama.

Batten responds that the energy council would allow CEQ to focus on other environmental concerns, rather than being fully consumed by energy and climate work. “There are also a whole slew of other environmental issues that need to be addressed, some of which are more easily connected to energy and climate change issues and some of which are less easily connected,” said Batten. “We don’t want to take away from these other very important environmental concerns and considerations that CEQ deals with.”

Though there would likely (probably inevitably) be some turf wars between agencies on specific issues, Weiss argues that this council would be able to reduce them.

“There’s always tension between agencies, so this would help smooth that out,” said Weiss. “Look how well it worked under Clinton, where they had the National Economic Council help devise and implement his economic plan, and when it passed Congress, helped lead to eight years of pretty successful growth. Ideally that would be what would happen with a National Energy Council.”

How likely do the CAP folks think it is that their plan will see action?

“I think the likelihood is high … President-elect Obama’s been talking a lot about the central themes of energy in his administration, and so by creating a National Energy Council, we think that’s a great way to actually achieve the goal of being able to prioritize this issue across agencies and within the White House,” said Batten. “We’re hopeful that this policy recommendation would be adopted.”

“But as you know we are not the administration, so we will see,” she added.