What happened to cap and trade?

CC photo by Flickr user riptheskull

David Roberts at Grist places the blame on the Senate’s failure to pass climate legislation not on environmentalists, but on the insane political situation in the Senate itself:

But step back for a moment and think about it. Climate and clean energy are incredibly difficult issues for any number of reasons. Yet environmentalists pulled together a huge coalition of businesses, religious groups, military groups, unions, and social justice groups. They got a majority of U.S. citizens on their side, as polls repeatedly showed. And — here’s the kicker — on the back of all that work, they got a majority of legislators in both houses of Congress on their side.

In a sane world — and in other developed democracies — that’s what success looks like. Environmentalists did what they were supposed to do, and they did it well! They should be proud of themselves. It’s not their fault Republicans are abusing idiosyncratic features of Senate governance to make reform prohibitively difficult.

The fact is, on a consequential, far-reaching, forward-looking, regionally charged set of issues like climate and energy, getting 60 percent of the country on your side is difficult enough. But getting 60 votes in the already-unrepresentative Senate is just an absurdly high bar. Theoretically, 40 senators representing under 10 percent of the population can block the will of the other 90 percent!

Not to mention the House passed a cap-and-trade bill last summer by a 219-212 vote. No wonder House members are getting annoyed by the Senate.

What’s the point of the filibuster? Well, Senators like having individual power, and the filibuster, for the most part, grants that. In order to change the rules, you’d have to convince some of the people in the middle that it’s in their interests, and it really isn’t. Senators like Ben Nelson, Scott Brown, Olympia Snow, &c., love the ability to block or pass legislation as they see fit. Senators also like to think that there’s this tradition where it’s used very infrequently, and you don’t want to kill the whole thing just because it’s being used more often lately than it should be. However, as Jon Chait at the New Republic (that bastion of radical leftist thought) points out:

In reality, the Senate does not function in anything like the idealized way that Senators imagine. It’s the House with a supermajority requirement (except for the budget.) … the old rare use of the filibuster was an unstable equilibrium. You can’t have a competitive system where one side can use its most powerful weapon anytime it chooses but is expected not to do it that often. If baseball teams were allowed to deploy two extra fielders any time they wanted, but were expected to save the move for moments when they really needed a stop, how long would it take before every team always deployed 11 fielders?

Ezra Klein pointed out Tuesday that some senators are considering changing the rules in the next congress. Of course, the chances of this happening are, in my opinion, almost nil. The senate is likely going to be a lot closer than it is now (there’s certainly no way that Democrats are going to gain seats, and it’s very unlikely they’ll lose enough to give Republicans a super-majority), so finding 50 votes to change the rules is going to be even more difficult that it would be now, even if you could make a reasonable case that it’s necessary and constitutional.

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