Back to the drawing board on carbon emissions? 

 

The Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill passed the House in June by a 219-212 vote, with 44 Democrats voting no. It’s obviously not about to pass the Senate. Senator Barbara Boxer, who promised to present a similar bill before the August recess, postponed that to the opening of the session this month and then, with colleague John Kerry, postponed it again till the end of the month. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said it’s unlikely the Senate can handle cap-and-trade legislation until after it deals with health care proposals—which could be a long, long time. President Barack Obama was embarrassed at the United Nations session by the Senate’s failure to pass such legislation, and stands to be embarrassed further at the Copenhagen climate change conference to be held in December.
 
What to do? Elaine Kamarck, a former top aide to Vice President Al Gore and one of the most thoughtful Democratic policy advisers around, has an idea, which she’s advanced in Politico: pass a carbon tax instead. Kamarck has presents some good arguments (and has the good political sense not to present others which would antagonize some Democrats). She argues that cap-and-trade would mean a volatile market for carbon emissions manipulated by Wall Street traders, which is pretty much true; she refrains from pointing out that Waxman-Markey is larded with favors passed out to well-placed lobbying groups, which is even truer. She notes that 26 states (with 52 senators) get more of their electricity from coal-fired plants than the national average (a point I’ve made in slightly different terms here) and argues that a carbon tax could be calibrated to place less burden on people in such states (although I’m not sure whether that would pass muster with senators from the other 24 states). That, like some of the provisions of Waxman-Markey, would reduce incentive to reduce carbon emissions than advocates of carbon emission reductions would like, but probably not as much so.
 
I think that congressional Democrats will continue to avoid a carbon tax like poison. But if they become convinced that the 2010 elections will reduce their majorities sufficiently, who knows what they might do? For those who think it’s a matter of urgency to reduce carbon emissions, Kamarck’s carbon tax is clearly better public policy than Waxman-Markey, and as carbon emissions legislation languishes in the Senate, it’s not clear that it’s worse politics.

 

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Michael Barone

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