On Climate Policy—What Should We Have Expected of the Biden Presidency?

January 27, 2022

I did not anticipate that there would be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done.-President Joe Biden

The question everyone in Capital City is asking these days is—has President Biden over-promised and under-delivered? Part of me simply wants to answer the question with another—what politician hasn’t?

As answering one question with another isn’t overly helpful, in this case, I’ll attempt to provide the political context in which US climate policy will be debated and possibly passed over the next six to eight months. After which, you may draw your own conclusions.

It’s clear now that the comprehensive national climate policy many expected to accompany Biden’s move into the White House and the Democrats’ control of Congress is not going according to Hoyle. In truth, very little these days is following along pre-trod paths—leaving us to poke along untried avenues in pursuit of new possibilities.

There’s a lot of blame being heaped on President Biden for failing to make good on his promises. During a rare 2-hour press conference, Biden was asked directly if he thought he over-promised as a candidate on the hustings. Unsurprisingly, he said he thought not—suggesting instead that it’s something of a miracle he’s gotten anything accomplished given the hostility of Capitol Hill Republicans to almost everything on his agenda. Then, too, there are the two DINOs (Democrats In Name Only) to placate.

With the dawn of an election year, Republican opposition to most things Democratic will only become more entrenched. As for Senators Manchin (D-WV) and Sinema (D-AZ), they’ve given no indication they’ll return to the fold any time soon. Both won’t face re-election until 2024.

During the press conference, Biden deflected questions about his failing agenda with his own questions.

What are Republicans for? What are they for? Name me one thing that they are for.”

Get used to the refrain of what are Republicans for? It will become the Democrats’ tit to the Republicans’ tat of calling them leftist, commie, socialists…blah, blah, blahs.

We’ll know in a few months who, between Senate Minority Leader McConnell (R-KY) and House Minority Leader McCarthy (R-CA), is the better Republican strategist over the next six or so months. The two have very different approaches to the matter of a Republican agenda. In actuality, the difference between them is Trump-based.

McConnell is clearly comfortable in his skin and seems secure in his Senate leadership position—caring little about what Trump has to say about him. The Kentuckian is a frequent target of the former president. Trump routinely calls him a losera Republican In Name Only (RINO), going so far as to claim that the Senator was whelped rather than born.

The Senate Minority Leader has indicated he won’t announce a legislative agenda ahead of the November elections. Although the Democrats will continue to badger Republicans, McConnell wants the entire midterm elections to be about Biden. He thinks it’s better if the GOP doesn’t give Democrats anything too specific at which to shoot. In the meantime, he’ll heed Nancy Reagan’s advice and just say NO—to nearly everything.

Things are different on the House side. Minority Leader McCarthy isn’t nearly as secure in his leadership role, and for good reason.

Trump has questioned McCarthy’s “fitness” for the speakership. The former president’s opinion of the Minority Leader is rumored to be partially based on a phone conversation they had during the January 6th insurrection.

It’s reported that McCarthy called during the January 6th assault and asked Trump to intercede in the attack on the Capitol. In response, Trump replied :

Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.

Representative Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA) has issued a veiled warning to McCarthy. In a conversation with Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Greene said straight out that Minority Leader might not have the full support of the Republican House Caucus. It wasn’t the first time McCarthy’s conservative credentials have been questioned.

For those unfamiliar with this devilish duo, Greene was stripped of her committee assignments over lies, racist remarks, and online encouragement of violence against Democrats. Like the former president she defends, she has been sent permanently to Twitter hell and kicked off Facebook for the lack of civic integrity.

Gaetz continues to push claims that the January 6th attack on the Capitol resulted from an FBI conspiracy. The FBI is currently investigating him for sex trafficking.

Gaetz and Greene are the most rabid defenders of the Big Lie. Any doubts they have about your believing Biden stole the election and all hope with Trump is dashed.

There’s political currency to be made by adhering to the lie. A December 2021 poll showed that only 21 percent of voting-age Republicans thought Biden was legitimately elected. It’s what happens when 127 Republican members of Congress object to the election results in Arizona and 154 question the outcome in Pennsylvania.

Many in Congress still refuse to acknowledge in public Biden’s win. They do so despite dozens of cases challenging the election having been thrown out of court and the election-confirming audit results in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

Whereas McConnell sees risk in letting voters know what Republicans are about, McCarthy has jumped in with both feet to establish his conservative creds. McCarthy was John Boehner’s pick to succeed him as House Speaker. However, members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, chaired by Jim Jordan (R-OH), had let it be known the Californian wasn’t up to conservative snuff. McCarthy left the field, and Ryan was elected Speaker.

These days McCarthy is surrounding himself with recognized conservative cognoscenti. He’s asking them to help devise a legislative agenda that Republican candidates can use in the November elections. In addition to ultra-conservatives in Congress like Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Jim Jordan, McCarthy has called on Newt Gingrich for assistance.

Gingrich had huge success with his Contract with America—an anaphora that helped the GOP take both chambers of Congress in 1994. It was the first time in 40 years that Republicans had control of Congress—much to the chagrin of former president Clinton.

Trump likes Gingrich. Politico reported in 2021 that he was helping Trump craft a policy agenda outlining a MAGA doctrine for the party using the 1994 Contract with America as a template. It will be interesting to see how McConnell treats a McCarthy Contract 2022.

It’s unclear what role Lindsay Graham (R-SC) will play in Senate politics in advance of the midterms. Graham told Sean Hannity, a Fox News Host:

Elections are about the future. If you want to be a Republican leader in the House or the Senate, you have to have a working relationship with President Donald Trump… the most consequential Republican since Ronald Reagan.

It’s one of the few times that Graham has shown anything but full-throated support for McConnell. Whether Graham believes what he said or was just saying it to further cement his position with Trump, only time and circumstances will tell.

You have to admit with all the negative energy being given off by Republicans, no Democrat in the Oval Office is going to have an easy time of it—not in his first year nor his last. It’s the unfortunate consequence of a hyper-partisan world.

One wonders if today’s bitterly partisan world is foreign to President Biden. The President grew up in a political era where haggling o over proposed legislation was routine. There always is. But at the end of the day, they would often come together and do the right thing—or at least something. Today? Well, today

“All politics have become pejorative.”

The one genuinely collaborative act over the past year was the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF). The BIF’s billions are the nation’s first major investment in resilience and adaptation. It won’t be the last.

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Soon enough, it will be difficult for Republicans to ignore the cry of their states and districts for the trillions more needed to adapt and become more resilient to the consequences of climate change.

“Democrats and Republicans see climate change through two very different lenses.”

Pardon my generalization, but Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill see—or act as if they see—no urgency in the situation the nation and world find themselves

There will come a time when Republican lawmakers will be confronted with the cost of inaction., There were 22 billion-dollar disasters in 2020. As the climate community might say—we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The temperature trend is no one’s friend. The past seven years have been the hottest on record. Melting polar ice caps due to warming means Earth’s oceans are rising. According to the World Wildlife Fund,

[We] lose Arctic [s]ea ice at a rate of almost 13 percent per decade. Over the past 30 years, the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by a stunning 95 percent(Emphasis added)

Warming seas increase the intensity and frequency of weather-related climate disasters. It’s still unclear what the total environmental impact of thawing permafrost will be—beyond the release of more greenhouse gases. Jordan Wilkerson writing in Scientific American: permafrost covers a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere’s land and stores around 1.5 trillion metric tons of organic carbon, twice as much as Earth’s atmosphere currently holds.

But I digress. I promised a discussion about the political environment, not the natural.

Positive things have also happened during Biden’s first year in office—despite all the hostility and clutter that’s been tossed over the White House fence. On the plus side is the administration’s progress in regulatory affairs. As of 25 January 2022, the count was—

Undoing and re-doing environmental regulations take time—and a lot of it. Depending on the regulation rescinding can mean going through a new rulemaking. A new rulemaking takes on average between two and three years—added to that is the time a legal challenge can take. Environmental regulations are a lightning rod for litigation.

The case of West Virginia v EPA that the US Supreme Court will soon hear harks back to Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). The Plan was issued in final form in 2015. The legal case that made it possible, Massachusetts v EPAwas decided in 2007.

At the heart of these cases is whether the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has statutory authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Should West Virginia and the other plaintiffs in the cases prevail, the only option opened to climate activists would be to get Congress to amend the Clean Air Act with words of certainty concerning EPA’s authority to regulate harmful green gases like carbon and methane.

The Biden administration should be credited for its regulatory work and for using the federal government’s purchasing power. A December directive orders agencies to lead by example by reaching a target of net-zero emissions from federal procurement no later than 2050.

A second December directive, Catalyzing America’s Clean Energy Industries and Creating Jobs, looks to leverage the weight of the government’s purchasing power to reach the 2050 procurement goal. If fully implemented, the federal government will have transformed a portfolio of 300,000 buildings and a fleet of 600,000 cars and trucks into net-zero sources of greenhouse gases.

Time too is an issue with the procurement goals. Federal contracting is hardly done at speed. There are rules to follow and cases to defend.

BUT, the three years left in Biden’s term are enough to get things started at scale. An active purchasing program will not only lead by example. It would make it more difficult for a hostile administration to pull them back. The Postal Service (USPS) awarded Oshkosh Defense its fleet replacement contract to manufacture at least 50,000 and up to 165,000 vehicles. USPS owns 200,000 cars and trucks.

The US Defense Department (DOD) is already a major purchaser of new energy technologies to power its facilities and for troops to use in the field. During the Trump administration, DOD didn’t stop buying solar, wind, battery, and other new technologies. It stopped talking about it.

The problem with executive orders is their vulnerability to a hostile regime. The on-again, off-again nature of supportive government policies is the US experience.

More stable public policies would have done a lot more to speed the transition to a low-carbon economy than has been done. They still could. However, with the inability of congressional Democrats to capitalize on its current control of Congress, the odds go down.

Given all of this, it does indeed look like President Biden over-promised and under-achieved in his first year and not just not on climate matters. But answer me this—

Can you honestly say you thought that Mr. Biden could just waltz into the Oval Office and change decades of hyper-partisanship and conflicting laws and rules with a wave of his hand or the eraser-end of his pencil?

If your answer was yes, then your future in politics may prove disappointing. Not that you would be alone in feeling disappointment in today’s politics.

As of the middle of January 2022, 47 members of Congress—six members of the US Senate and 41 members of the US House—have announced they will not seek re-election. With such narrow majorities in the House and Senate, the loss of what is usually an incumbent’s edge can pose a significant problem for both the party and its president.

The battle for needed climate legislation is not quite over. The Democrats are looking to find chunks of the Build Back Better Act (BBBA) that might be passed as stand-alone legislation or as part of a yet-again watered-down reconciliation package.

Chief among the chunks could well be the energy and environment provisions. Manchin has consistently indicated he’s willing to talk about them. How willing, at the moment, is unclear.

There’s more to this story that I’ll be writing about in the days and weeks ahead—including a “snap” of where we are with new legislation and more about expectations.

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.


Teaser photo credit:Photo by ElevenPhotographs on 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 climate policy, American politics