New Yorker: Obama White House to Blame for Failure of Cap and Trade?
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
At The New Yorker this week, Ryan Lizza provides an account of why the Senate cap and trade legislation failed, told mostly from the perspective of staffers working for Senate co-sponsors John Kerry, Lindsay Graham, and Joe Lieberman (aka KGL).
According to Lizza's account, a combination of factors led to failure, including competing agendas among the co-sponsoring senators, the need to appease fellow Democrats from coal and agriculture states, and a series of strategic blunders in the negotiations with Republicans and different industry sectors.
But among factors, the White House is depicted as carrying heavy blame. In particular, the White House, according to Lizza's story, jumped out ahead of the KGL team, making policy announcements that were intended to be carefully timed as key concessions offered to win fence-sitting Democrat and Republican votes.
Also according to Lizza, the White House (along with Harry Reid) were the main catalysts for Graham's eventual defection from the legislation. Here's a key excerpt, opening with Graham's reaction to the March 31, 2009 announcement by the White House that off-shore drilling would be expanded:
When Graham’s energy staffer learned of the announcement, the night before, he was “apoplectic,” according to a colleague. The group had dispensed with the idea of drilling in ANWR, but it was prepared to open up vast portions of the Gulf and the East Coast. Obama had now given away what the senators were planning to trade.
This was the third time that the White House had blundered. In February, the President’s budget proposal included $54.5 billion in new nuclear loan guarantees. Graham was also trying to use the promise of more loan guarantees to lure Republicans to the bill, but now the White House had simply handed the money over. Later that month, a group of eight moderate Democrats sent the E.P.A. a letter asking the agency to slow down its plans to regulate carbon, and the agency promised to delay any implementation until 2011. Again, that was a promise Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman wanted to negotiate with their colleagues. Obama had served the dessert before the children even promised to eat their spinach. Graham was the only Republican negotiating on the climate bill, and now he had virtually nothing left to take to his Republican colleagues.
But the Administration had grown wary of cutting the kind of deals that the senators needed to pass cap-and-trade. The long and brutal health-care fight had caused a rift in the White House over legislative strategy. One camp, led by Phil Schiliro, Obama’s top congressional liaison, was composed of former congressional aides who argued that Obama needed to insert himself in the legislative process if he was going to pass the ambitious agenda that he had campaigned on. The other group, led by David Axelrod, believed that being closely associated with the messiness of congressional horse-trading was destroying Obama’s reputation.
“We ran as an outsider and then decided to be an insider to get things done,” a senior White House official said. According to the official, Schiliro and the insiders argued, “You’ve got to own Congress,” while Axelrod and the outsiders argued, “Fuck whatever Congress wants, we’re not for them.” The official added, “We probably did lose part of our brand. Obama turned into exactly what we promised ourselves he wasn’t going to be, which is the leader of parliament. We became the majority leader of both houses, and we ceded the Presidency.” Schiliro’s side won the debate over how the White House should approach health care, but in 2010, when the Senate took up cap-and-trade, Axelrod’s side was ascendant. Emanuel, for example, called Reid’s office in March and suggested that the Senate abandon cap-and-trade in favor of a modest bill that would simply require utilities to generate more electricity from clean sources.
In early April, according to two K.G.L. aides, someone at the Congressional Budget Office told Kerry that its economists, when analyzing the bill, would describe the linked fee as a tax. After learning that, the three senators met with lobbyists for the big oil firms, and Kerry offered a new proposal: the refiners would have to buy permits, but the government would sell them at a stable price outside the regular trading system. This arrangement would make no economic difference to consumers: the oil companies would pass the costs on to drivers whether they paid a linked fee or bought special permits. But Kerry thought that the phraseology could determine whether the bill survived or died. The refiners surprised everyone by readily agreeing to the new terms. The linked fee was dead, and so, it seemed, was the threat of Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman’s bill being brought down by opponents attacking it as a gas tax.
Two days later, on April 15th, Emanuel and Browner hosted a group of prominent environmentalists at the White House for an 11 A.M. meeting. For weeks, the linked fee had been a hot topic among Washington climate-change geeks. Now the two groups that hated the policy the most were in the same room. According to people at the meeting, the White House aides and some of the environmentalists, including Carl Pope, the chairman of the Sierra Club, expressed their contempt for the linked fee: even if it was a fine idea on the merits, it was political poison. The White House aides and the environmentalists either didn’t know that the fee had been dropped from the bill or didn’t think the change was significant. The meeting lasted about thirty minutes.
Just after noon, Rimkunas, Graham’s climate-policy adviser, sent Rosengarten an e-mail. The subject was “Go to Fox website and look at gas tax article asap.” She clicked on Foxnews.com: “WH Opposes Higher Gas Taxes Floated by S.C. GOP Sen. Graham in Emerging Senate Energy Bill.” The White House double-crossed us, she thought. The report, by Major Garrett, then the Fox News White House correspondent, cited “senior administration sources” and said that the “Obama White House opposes a move in the Senate, led by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, to raise federal gasoline taxes within still-developing legislation to reduce green house gas emissions.” Including two updates to his original story, Garrett used the word “tax” thirty-four times.
“This is horrific,” Rosengarten e-mailed Rimkunas.
“It needs to be fixed,” he responded. “Never seen lg this pissed.”
“We’re calling Schiliro and getting the WH to publicly correct.”
Graham was “screaming profanities,” one of the K.G.L. staffers said. In addition to climate change, he was working with Democrats on immigration and on resolving the status of the prison at Guantánamo Bay. He was one of only nine Republicans to vote for Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor. Now Obama aides were accusing him of backing a gas tax, which wasn’t his idea and wasn’t even in the draft bill. Worst of all, the leakers went to Fox News, a move which they knew would cause Graham the most damage. He called one of his policy advisers that day and asked, “Did you see what they just did to me?” The adviser said, “It made him question, ‘Do they really want to get this done or are they just posturing here? Because why would they do something like this if they wanted to get it done?’ It was more than an attempt to kill the idea. It was also an attempt to tag him with the idea, and, if you want him to be an ally on the issue, why would you do that?” Graham’s legislative director, Jennifer Olson, argued that he should withdraw from K.G.L. that day.
Kerry called Browner and yelled, “It wasn’t his idea!” He added, “It’s not a gas tax. You’ve got to defend our guy. We’ve been negotiating in good faith, and how can you go and turn on him like this?” After talking to Graham, Lieberman walked into the office of his legislative director, Todd Stein. “If we don’t fix this,” the Senator said, “this could be the death of the bill.”
On April 17th, two days after the Fox story, an activist named William Gheen, speaking at a Tea Party event in Greenville, South Carolina, told the crowd, “I’m a tolerant person. I don’t care about your private life, Lindsey, but as our U.S. senator I need to figure out why you’re trying to sell out your own countrymen, and I need to make sure you being gay isn’t it.” The question, with its false assertion that Graham is gay, turned into a viral video on the Web. Then Newt Gingrich’s group, American Solutions, whose largest donors include coal and electric-utility interests, began targeting Graham with a flurry of online articles about the “Kerry-Graham-Lieberman gas tax bill.” That week, the group launched a campaign in South Carolina urging conservatives to call Graham’s office “and ask him not to introduce new gas taxes.”
Kerry and Lieberman spent hours alone with Graham, trying to placate him. They forced the White House to issue a statement, which said that “the Senators don’t support a gas tax.” Graham had talked to Emanuel and was satisfied that the chief of staff wasn’t the source of the leak. Eventually, the people involved believed that they had mollified him. By the time Graham showed up at the conference table in Emanuel’s White House office on April 20th, he had calmed down. But, if he was going to suffer a ferocious backlash back home, he needed the White House to be as committed as he was. He was not encouraged when Axelrod, speaking about Democrats in Congress, noted, “The horse has been ridden hard this year and just wants to go back to the barn.”