What a Democratic Victory Means for National Climate Policy–Progressives Are in the House

November 20, 2018

This is the third installment in series on the impact of 2018 midterm elections on national climate policy. The previous articles on Resilience.org may be seen here and here.)

Youth ages, immaturity is outgrown, ignorance can be educated, and drunkenness    sobered, but stupid lasts forever. -Aristophanes  

When the 116th Congress opens for business in January, it will mark the first time in a decade that the House of Representatives will be controlled by a Democratic majority. Like my neighbor’s Basset Hound who just caught the postal truck, it appears the Democrats are not quite sure what to do with the House now that it is theirs.

November’s balloting served to purge the Republican ranks of its more moderate members in Congress. Some of the more establishment Republicans like Senator Flake (R-AZ) chose retirement over forced fealty to Trump. Others like Representative Curbelo (R-FL) who had distanced themselves from The Donald lost their bid for re-election.

It was a much different story for the Democrats. Sheryl Gay Stolberg describes the incoming freshman class of House Democrats as the most diverse, most female freshman class in history — a group of political neophytes, savvy veterans of the Obama and Clinton administrations, as well as the first Muslim women and Native American women ever elected to Congress. Although ideologically diverse, many of the first-timers share a common concern for the environment and a suspicion of the establishment—incarnate in the form of Nancy Pelosi.

Some 17 or more incoming and incumbent House Democrats have vowed to oppose Pelosi’s assuming the Speaker’s chair for the second time in her career. They, like Trump, have used the Californian as a convenient foil post in campaign speeches although for very different reasons. Trump waves Pelosi in front of his core supporters much like a matador flaps his cape before a bull—to much the same effect. House Democrats in opposition see her as an impediment to putting a progressive agenda in place—much like Sander’s supporters saw Clinton in 2016.

Energy and the environment are playing a prominent role in the Democratic leadership debates with all sides agreeing that climate policy should be near the top of the House agenda in the two years leading up to the 2020 elections. Pelosi along with Democratic members likely to move into leadership positions on key committees have wasted no time in singling out climate as a priority.

​Ranking Democrats expected to take over as chairs of their existing committees—Science, Space, and Technology’s Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Energy and Commerce’s Frank Pallone (D-NY) and Natural Resources’ Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ)—have indicated they would be calling hearings shortly after the 116th Congress comes to order. Pelosi has expressed her support for resurrecting a special committee on climate change that was disbanded in 2011 by the then newly elected Republican House majority.


An orderly assumption of majority status is more significant than many outside Capital City might suspect. What may otherwise be considered a healthy family argument between party members is viewed by the “other side of the aisle” as a weakness to be exploited. Conflicts between the 30 ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus and Speakers Boehner and Ryan had much to do with the retirement of both men after relatively short stints as the leaders of their caucus. Democrats would be wise not to let themselves get into a similar position.

Process and perception can be critical to a Speaker’s ability to perform. Electing the House’s is a two-step process. The first step is internal balloting by each of the caucuses to nominate their candidates. The Republicans have already voted Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as their “Minority Leader” and, therefore, their candidate for Speaker. In the next week or two, the Democrats will huddle and cast their votes for Speaker and other of the caucus’ leadership roster. A simple majority of the caucus members is all that is necessary to secure the Speaker’s nomination. The number of House Democrats will be around 234 once all the races are called making the simple majority number 118[i].

The second step is a floor vote by the entire Congress. The rules require the winning candidate to secure a majority of either the full House or the number of members in attendance. If all members attend, Pelosi will need 218 votes to secure the Speaker’s spot. With 234 Democratic members, a refusal by 17 could deny Pelosi the chair. The Huffington Post reports an opposition letter signed by 16 Democrats has now been released. There also appears to be a contingent of members willing to oppose but unwilling to sign. Nearly half of the Democrats opposed to Pelosi are incumbents.

Although there is no chance that Pelosi could not secure the votes to be nominated, opponents are hoping to make the case against her receiving the needed floor votes to dissuade her from continuing her pursuit of the nomination. They too understand that a public repudiation of Pelosi and a knock-down internal fight could have serious negative consequences.  Of even worse consequence is the possibility—although remote—that Pelosi would win election with the help of Republicans.

Trump has offered to deliver the additional votes Pelosi might need should she not receive the support of enough Democrats. The offer certainly is not the product of a generous heart. Trump and many Republican candidates made the 2018 election about Pelosi and would have trouble filling the position of boogeyperson without a Hillary or Nancy to kick around anymore. The burn factor alone would be embarrassing enough, without having a Democratic Speaker beholden to Trumplicans. The only worse possibility would be for McCarthy to gain the needed majority—a highly unlikely but mathematically possible outcome.

Here is as good as any spot to ask the question asked in the first two articles in the series. What does an appreciation of “inside the beltway” political maneuverings have to do with federal climate policy? The answer is the same—quite a lot. As I had written in the previous articles, everything that will go on in the 116th Congress will be directed at the 2020 national elections.

The gridlock that has characterized Congress for decades is going to continue for at least as long as the executive and legislative branches are in the hands of competing forces—whether Republicans versus Democrats or Republicans versus Trumplicans or Democrats versus progressives. Over the next two years, little of substance is going to get through the Congressional gauntlet and onto the president’s desk for signature.

In the bluntest of terms what can be expected of the federal government is this–

  • Together the House, Senate and the White House will figure out ways to keep the government running—likely through Continuing Resolutions–without the addition of anything new. There are certain exceptions to this, e.g., emergency disaster funding and anything that Trumplicans and Democrats can agree on, e.g., criminal justice reform.
  • IndividuallyTrump can be counted on to issue more executive orders directing agencies to do whatever they can get away with, e.g., rolling back regulations, ignoring the Administrative Procedures Act, cleansing websites of references to climate-science, etc. Trump will continue cleaning house and nominating/appointing loyalists to the offices vacated by those fired or frustrated enough to leave. And, of course, Trump twitter storms will continue to blow hard.
  • The Republican Senate, with its slightly more secure majority, will continue confirming Trump’s judicial and executive branch nominees, while Democrats stand-by helpless to stop them.
  • The Democratic House, for its part, will be spending the next two years attempting to show voters what they would do, if only they had the power to do it and exposing what Trump and his administration have been doing through oversight investigations.

For some reason, writing the above play script makes me want to bathe and apologize for the dysfunction of it all. The nation needs constructive action(s) and what it will most likely be getting from Washington are previews of the 2020 party platforms– panem et circensesis.

A House Divided and Divided Again (Won’t Stand Tall)

How the priorities and promises of the House Democrats are presented to voters is going to make a great deal of difference to the outcome of the 2020 elections. The process and perception I had earlier referenced as being critical to the Speaker’s ability to perform are equally crucial to the performance of the Democrats in the next election.

The Democratic House majority has an opportunity to offer a constructive alternative to Trump’s denialist rollback of the nation’s environmental protections. How Democrats go about that will largely determine where voters place climate defense and resilience on their list of federal priorities for years to come. The climate message of the 2017-2018 is not nearly as clear on a national scale as some of the incoming members of the House believe it to be.

Vox’s David Roberts captured the situation perfectly:

Clean energy and anti-fossil fuel state ballot initiatives got crushed by fossil fuel money this year, including a carbon tax in Washington state. But those defeats happened within the context of a fairly strong year for clean-energy Democrats.

Being in control of the House offers two very great benefits the one leading to the other. Control of the committees and the opportunity to set the tone and terms of debate particularly in the media. Although politics is not brain surgery, it nevertheless requires a delicacy of touch to be successful—no matter what Trump might have to say about it.

Democrats need to come to some agreement on the audience they are hoping to convince, the messages they wish to convey and the vehicles they intend to use, i.e., committees. Taking these issues in order, the audience they should be speaking to are the voters between the core constituencies of Trumplicans and progressive Democrats.

I’ve written before that Congressional compromise has become a pipe-dream in modern politics. Also, in the dream category is that the party of climate defenders will be so successful in 2020 that it will capture both chambers of Congress and the White House. A lesson confirmed in this election cycle is that divided government doesn’t seem to bother Americans. According to Gallup:

The prospect of a divided government over the next two years is not something the majority of Americans will see as a negative, given that 29% prefer that government be divided, and another 35% say it doesn’t make a difference or have no opinion.

The demographics going into the 2020 elections are such that it will not be easy for the Democrats to capture the Senate. Although a blue wave occurred this year at the level of Congressional districts, significant questions remain about Republican weakness in Senate races in the states between the coasts. Of course, it might change in the next 18 to 24 months because of some outlandish act by Trump. It should not, however, be counted on.

According to Anne Kim and Will Marshall at the Progressive Policy Institute:

For Democrats to maintain and expand this near-majority advantage, they must craft a broadly appealing agenda that brings or keeps independents and less-committed partisans — the majority of whom call themselves ‘moderate’ — under the tent.

Strong partisans of either stripe were a minority among our respondents—potential evidence that the nation may have hit a ‘peak polarization’ and is now on its way to a more rational equilibrium. Among the voters surveyed…only, 27 percent identified…as ‘strong Democrats’ and 22 percent said they were ‘strong Republicans,’ while the remainder—51 percent—identified as real partisans (20 percent) or independents (31 percent).

What gives the Democratic Party its strength is its diversity—which is also what makes it so difficult to manage. That the core constituencies of the two parties are so nearly divided in terms of voting means the battle to be won is for the hearts and minds of those in the middle.


Overall vote totals are not the problem for Democrats—geographic distribution is. In both 2016 and 2018 Democrats outpolled Republicans. Clinton received nearly three million more votes than Trump. This year Democrats in the House received 51.5 million (51.2 percent) votes in total while Republicans logged 47.3 million votes (47.1 percent). Senate Republicans in 2018 fared even worse with 33.5 million votes (41.5) percent of all votes to the Democrat’s 46 million (56.9 percent).

To capture the Senate and the White House, Democrats need to captivate and motivate voters in red states with a message that resonates. In a sense, Trump is right when he says the electoral system is rigged—although not quite the way he thinks it is. In the Senate, North Dakota is the equal of Illinois, Michigan, or New York, whereas in the House population matters.

The winner-take-all nature of the electoral college system also dampens the impact of actual vote numbers. Trump won Michigan by 0.3 percentage points but was awarded all 16 of the state’s electoral votes. The same pattern was repeated elsewhere in states like Illinois, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

Democrats must also contend with the rural/urban-suburban divide. According to Erin Murphy of The Gazette:

The divide between rural and urban voters in Iowa continues to sharpen. Democrats dominate in the state’s biggest cities, while Republicans own the rural areas. It’s existed for more than a few election cycles, but the contrast has grown increasingly stark.

Figure 2 illustrates just how geographically widespread the Republican landscape is even with the Democrats in control of the House. Although all Republicans in the red areas are not Trumplicans, many are far more conservative than progressive Democrats—so too are the constituents of many of the returning (incumbent) Democratic House members. To have a chance of winning the Senate majority and the White House in 2020, Democrats will have to win over centrist voters in states such as Colorado, Maine, Iowa, North Carolina, and Alabama. It is what it is.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

Democrats in general and green ones in particular must be careful not to assume that the success of incoming and incumbent progressive candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Deb Haaland (D-NM), Rashid Tlaib (D-MI), Rohit Khanna (D-CA),  Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) evidences a full turn to the left by the Democratic Party. It was a Blue Wave on November 6th, not a Dark Blue Wave and caution is advised.

The question then is what the arguments and proposed actions voters in the middle kingdom—especially in the South and Southwest— are most likely to view favorably enough to go green in 2020. Consider the promise of Democrats to exercise the oversight powers of House committees like Oversight and Government ReformEnergy and Commerce and ScienceNatural Resources, and Space and Technology.[i]

​The likely chairs of these committees have promised to hold two days of hearings on climate change as the first order of substantive business. According to Frank Pallone (D-NJ) currently the senior Democrat on Energy and Commerce:


We plan to hit the ground immediately with a series of hearings early in the next Congress on how best to combat this growing global crisis. Our committees plan to work closely together to aggressively assess the public health, economic and environmental impacts of climate change and to explore the best solutions to combat this challenge.

Objective hearings on climate-science are long overdue in Congress. Democrats have an opportunity to re-establish the House as a forum in which open and fair debate occurs. Although investigation of the administration’s abuses of power and rejection of science is a responsibility of leadership, Democrats must resist revenge. It is suspect and will neither convince suburban white women, community leaders of color, nor Iowa farmers that the negative consequences of climate change are at hand nor that proposed solutions are real and worth investing in.

The new House majority must also resist the temptation to overreach. Questions about the Green New Deal proposal of Ocasio-Cortez that is being backed by other incoming freshman members and several incumbents suggest that veteran Democrats are being reminded of another sweeping piece of climate legislation that was passed by the House before the stage was adequately set. In 2009 a House-passed cap-and-trade bill was rejected by a Democratic Senate.

No significant climate legislation is going to get through the Trumplican gauntlet between now and 2020. Democrats across the board and climate defenders should view the 116th Congress as a time of transition–preferably an orderly transition. The climate messages of the midterms met with a decidedly mixed reaction.

Fifty-six percent of voters opposed Washington state’s carbon pricing initiative, with most saying the potential cost outweighed their desire to use the fee to combat global warming. It is the same reason cited by many Colorado voters and those in Arizona. These states are populated by substantial numbers of climate defenders; and yet, these proposals lost by significant percentages. The geographic distribution of the votes on the initiatives bear a striking resemblance to the votes for Democrats and Republicans in general—urban/suburban vs. rural. 

Time is needed to assess those messages, establish dialogues with incoming pro-environment and clean energy governors, unions, environmental organizations, educated white and women of color living in urban and suburban districts, farmers in Iowa, Nebraska and elsewhere, coal-miners in West Virginia and others in the diverse population that waved Democrats into the 116th Congress. A well-organized discussion will lead to more effective messaging in 2020—increasing the likelihood that climate will find its way onto the national priority agenda.

It is within this transition context that Pelosi’s role as Speaker should be considered. Minority Leader Pelosi is not the only one in Congress who could credibly do that job. She is, however, the most practiced and proven hand to forge the various factions within the Congress and the Party into a compelling and well-financed juggernaut that stands a better than even chance of putting the nation back on the path to a low-carbon economy.

The bottom-line–

​With eyes on the 2020 election and putting climate back on the national agenda, the newly elected Democratic House majority would be wise to use the term of the 116th Congress as a transitional period in which new leaders and legislative concepts are brought before the nation in an orderly and objective manner.

In the next installment of the series, I will be discussing strategies that the new Congress can employ to bring to light for voters the dangerous road the Administration is going down in its efforts to de-regulate the environment—strategies devised by Congressional Republicans in the wake of efforts by the Obama administration to combat climate change.

[i]The 118 number like all references are based on decided races. The final numbers may be slightly different.

[ii] Note that the links to the House Committees will take you to the current Congress. The links for these committees will be the same in the 116th Congress starting in January.

​Figure 1 source: Progressive Policy Institute
Figure 2 source: www.270towin.com

Lead image: rawpixel-1072892-unsplash
Secondary photo: t-chick-mccmlure-609572-unsplash

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion (www.civilnotion.com) and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: American environmental policy, American politics, US elections