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Climate Politics: The View from Washington February 29, 2024

February 29, 2024

Legislation is not enacted in a vacuum. Successful advocacy strategies begin with understanding the political context in which proposed climate-related policies are debated and acted upon.

Republicans and Democrats are once again playing a game of political chicken over government funding. Who will blink first?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Congress is again facing a potential government shutdown because House Republicans won’t play nice with each other—or with the Democrats. According to the terms of the current Continuing Resolution (CR), bills covering military construction and the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Energy, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Affairs come due on March 1st. The bill for the rest of the government comes due on March 8th.

The dates are different, but the game’s the same. The ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus (HFC), along with other MAGA-aligned members, are demanding significant budget cuts, and they want to add riders on the appropriation bills that reflect Trump’s America First agenda.

The Hill reports that the House Freedom Caucus has written House Speaker Johnson (R-LA) with a list of more than 20 policy riders they want added to the annual appropriation bills, e.g., zeroing out Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s salary, blocking the Pentagon’s ability to reimburse the travel costs of service members who obtain abortions and defunding elements of the Biden administration’s climate agenda. The Democrats said for months that these are all non-starters.

The members of Congress most nervous a shutdown are Senate Republicans and House GOP moderates. Senate Minority Leader McConnell (R-KY) keeps saying: “Shutting down the government is harmful to the country. And it never produces positive outcomes — on policy or politics.” West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito (WV) was a bit more blunt —

“Shutdowns, I say repeatedly, are always a bad idea. It doesn’t help anybody, it’s just a misery march.”

President Biden will be meeting with House and Senate leaders over the next several days. However, you have to wonder how much incentive there is for President Biden and the Democrats to be overly compromising in their efforts to avoid a government shutdown that Republicans will be blamed for and which will serve as a fresh example of their inability to govern.

McConnell and Capito are right. The GOP always takes it in the neck for closing down the government. A Republican-inspired shutdown could be just what Biden needs to shift the national dialogue about how old and infirmed he is to how incapable of governing the Republicans are.

Typically, what happens when Congress can’t agree on appropriations is a Continuing Resolution(s) is passed at the 11th hour. If history repeats itself, Congress will pass the fourth CR covering the current fiscal year.

As if things weren’t already complicated enough, Congress’ failure to pass appropriations bills by the end of April will trigger across-the-board cuts in the federal budget that can result in reductions in excess of five percent on climate-related discretionary spending.

The Fiscal Responsibility Act could become the far-right’s Plan B for cutting back programs.

Should Congress not pass a government budget before April 30th, the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA or Act) would result in significant funding cuts. “It would also rescind remaining government funds on a range of measures related to COVID-19 and tighten work and training requirements to receive certain kinds of assistance, specifically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.” (Forbes)

Should the FRA’s provisions be triggered, it would cut non-defense discretionary spending by $40 billion (approximately 5.4 percent)[i]. The reduction limits non-defense spending to $704 billion, down from last year’s level of $744 billion. Compared to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) baseline, this is a reduction of $111 billion, and it is $105 billion below the president’s request. (House Budget Committee)

According to the White House, it budgeted $44.9 billion in discretionary authority for addressing the climate crisis and advancing environmental justice. The number includes investments in clean energy innovation ($12 billion) and deployment of innovative technologies. Other discretionary programs include a solar manufacturing accelerator, the addition of 1,500 firefighters to enhance community resilience, and cost-reduction strategies for low-income families.

Just as a Republican-forced shutdown could benefit Democrats in the immediate term, triggering the cuts in discretionary spending through the FRA could serve as an incentive for MAGA-aligned Republicans as a back door into substantial reductions in non-defense spending.

The impact of budget cuts falls hardest on federal discretionary spending because everything else is either a mandated expense, e.g., Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, supplemental nutrition assistance, federal civilian and military retirement benefits, and unemployment insurance, or an interest payment.

Debt service is the second biggest cost to taxpayers. In 2022, debt service cost the government $476 billion—up from $352 billion in 2021. (Tax Policy Center) The Washington Post estimates that interest on the debt could become the biggest expense within three years.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s only so much blood you can get from turnip. Should investing in new clean energy technologies be discretionary? I guess it depends on your definition of “discretionary.”

So, let’s talk a bit about the roiling winds on Capitol Hill—starting with the continuing saga of House Speaker Johnson.

Will House Speaker Johnson be “McCarthy’d”?

Once again, Johnson is faced with a choice between keeping the government open and MAGA-aligned members of his Republican House caucus former Mr. Trump off his back. It’s not the first budget rodeo for Johnson as House speaker. However, not much has changed from few months ago with the exception that nerves are more frayed and frustration levels keep rising. So, the situation is volatile.

If the speaker wants to keep the government open, he’ll need Democratic votes. If he does that, there’s no telling what all the MAGA-aligned representatives will decide to do—including the attempt to oust Johnson the way they did McCarthy.

Johnson is being called inept and even less flattering things. His conference members talk about his inability to make decisions. He thinks he’s being collegial as he solicits opinions, while they think he’s making excuses. It’s not a good combination, even at the best of times—which these are not.

Johnson’s trouble is not just from the far-right. Moderates and Reagan Republicans are also questioning his ability to lead. It’s resulting in weekly announcements by many traditional GOP politicians like Representative Mike Gallagher (R-MI) who won’t be running for re-election. For the Michigander, the last straw was the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. (See below)

The budget is a problem until it’s settled, and there are political crosswinds. There are also limited scenarios for what will happen between now and the end of the fiscal year (September 30th).

Congress can keep passing short-term Continuing Resolutions. It can also enactan omnibus long-term resolution and be done with it all. Then, too, there’s passing the 12 appropriation bills the way the system was designed. Of the options, this is the least realistic.

The unknown is whether the uber-right will force a shutdown. The majority and minority leaders of both chambers have met with the president to discuss a strategy. Although none was forthcoming, everyone seemed to say no one wanted to see the government close.

Will they finally say, “Enough is enough,” and do something more dramatic like closing down the government the way Trump did as president?

There are murmurings that Representatives Marjorie Greene (R-GA) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) are considering a motion to vacate the chair if Johnson continues to work rely on Democratic votes to get things done. So far, these are just mutterings. Should it come to pass it would kick the rest of the legislative year into a cocked hat, at least before the November elections.

Biden’s supplemental request for Ukraine, Israel, Gaza (humanitarian), and border security.

It’s not as if the federal budget is the only hot ticket item Johnson has to deal with. The supplemental appropriation for aid to Ukraine, Israel, Gaza (humanitarian), and border security is also hanging fire. Although the speaker says he supports aid to these nations at war, it’s unclear how he’ll accomplish that in the face of Trump’s opposition.

Not only is Trump against supporting Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself from Russia, he’s quoted saying that as president, he wouldn’t come to the aid of any NATO nation behind in its organizational dues—a number he pegs as equal to two percent of their GDP. He’s gone so far as to say that he would encourage Russia to attack them.

Trump continues to oppose any new border security measures as part of a supplemental foreign aid bill. Just weeks ago, Republicans said it was at the heart of their demands for supporting the foreign aid supplemental.

The Senate has now passed a $95 billion foreign aid bill that stripped the border security provisions out of the bipartisan bill. The vote was 70-29. There are also bipartisan efforts on the House side to pass a pared-down bill that would cover aid to Ukraine et al. and address some border protections.

Nothing will happen on the foreign aid bill—with or without border security measures—if a bill can’t make it onto the House floor for a vote. Not everyone in the Republican House conference is opposed to the supplemental requests.

There’s talk of an effort to do an end-around the House Rules Committee with a discharge petition. The maneuver requires an absolute majority (218) of the House to sign the petition. It’s a rarely used procedure because getting members to vote against their party’s leadership is difficult and comes with political risk. To succeed, five Republicans, along with all of the 213 Democrats, would need to sign on. Even disgruntled Republican representatives would have second thoughts about bucking the speaker and former president on the end-around.

Impeachments

Having been impeached by the House, Secretary Mayorka is now awaiting action by the Senate. McConnell and Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-SD) are calling for a full Senate trial. There’s no chance that Mayorkas will be found guilty. His only transgression is being a member of Biden’s cabinet. It’s theatre—and not even good theatre.

The House Republicans impeached the Homeland Secretary over Democratic policies they oppose, not for anything amounting to a provable high crime or misdemeanor. Several Republican senators, including Murkowski (R-AK) and, Capito, believe a trial would be “a diversion from important work.”

The House Oversight and Judiciary Committees are focused on President Biden’s son, Hunter. According to The Hill, Hunter is at the center of the Republican inquiries into the president’s impeachment. Republicans allege that Hunter “engineered an elaborate web of lucrative business ventures overseas that leaned heavily on his father’s international influence — and that the president himself has benefited financially from those shady arrangements. No evidence has been presented.”

A canary in the coal mine?

Shockingly, Senate Minority Leader McConnell has just announced that he would be stepping down as the Republican Senate (Minority) Leader in November. Unlike former House Speaker McCarthy, the 82-year-old Kentuckian intends to finish out his term.

In a speech on the Senate floor, McConnell said it had been a difficult time for his family after the loss of his wife’s younger sister. The senator is married to Elaine Chao, who served as Trump’s transportation secretary. The couple have frequently been the targets of Trump’s acid tongue. The former president has been known to use in his public rantings the racist epithet “Coco Chow” for his former transportation secretary.

Before his announcement, it was being reported that McConnell’s peeps were talking to Trump’s about the minority leader’s 2024 endorsement of the former president. He’s facing increasing pressures from inside his conference. Thirty-two Senate Republicans—including most of his leadership team—have already endorsed the former president.

The former president has long made it known that he would like to see the Kentuckian replaced as Senate Republican leader with someone more to his liking. McConnell has made at least half of the ex-president’s wish a reality.

It’s anyone’s guess if McConnell will find some way to rationalize endorsing Trump; he’s been clever that way in the past. If he does go through with it, it will be because he sees it as critical to Republican chances of a GOP takeover of both the House and Senate.

That he is even considering it is compelling evidence that Trump’s grip on the GOP is nearly complete. McConnell’s announcement comes on the heels of Ronna McDaniel (forced) retirement as chair of the RNC. Her replacement will be a Trump loyalist.

I’ll be updating this article over the next few days as events dictate—so readers should check back in in a few days—or sign up on Civil Notion for automatic updates.

That’s it for this edition of Climate Politics: The View from Washington. Look for updates in the coming days.

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.