By Josh Kurtz
In 2010, then-Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The election cycle turned out to be toxic for Democrats, and they lost 63 House seats – though Van Hollen was hardly responsible.
Most pundits blamed the Democrats’ losses on Obamacare, which Democrats pushed through Congress that year, riling up a huge segment of the electorate and giving rise to the tea party.
But Democratic legislation to address climate change may have been just as fatal in the 2010 elections.
The “American Clean Energy and Security Act,” the bill to cap carbon emissions, passed the House in 2009 by a 219-212 vote, with eight Republicans supporting it and 44 Democrats opposing it. It died in the Senate without a vote.
Some smart Democratic minds – Van Hollen included – urged President Obama and congressional leaders to put off the climate bill. Muscling through cap-and-trade and health care reform in the same election cycle, they argued, would be too heavy a lift and would turn off too many voters.
Turns out they were right. Moderate Democrats in particular – whether they supported or opposed the climate bill – were slaughtered.
Fast forward to today. Van Hollen is in the Senate – and serving as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. It’s looking like a pretty good cycle for Democrats, but the Senate map is still pretty unforgiving.
But if there was any doubt that this election cycle is a lot different from the one eight years ago, consider this: Van Hollen has just introduced legislation to confront climate change – a concept he is calling “cap-and-dividend.”
This time, Van Hollen says there’s no political risk for Democrats.
“I’m not concerned that this will have a negative impact on members of the Democratic caucus, because I think the American public is way out ahead of Washington in recognizing climate change as a threat … and also recognizing the opportunities of promoting clean energy technologies,” Van Hollen said during a news conference this week on the legislation, the “Healthy Climate and Family Security Act.”
Of course, there is zero chance of passing the bill this year in the Republican-led Congress.
The bill would set CO2 emissions caps and auction carbon credits to the first sellers of coal, oil and natural gas into the U.S. market. The dividends would be returned to U.S. taxpayers quarterly. Backers of the legislation have launched a website promoting its approach.
Van Hollen said voter support for addressing climate change is growing at the same time that Democrats are expected to make significant political gains this November – and they could even take control of the House or Senate.
“The point here is to continue to build momentum right now,” Van Hollen said. “Because if we do nothing right now and the opportunity presents itself, we will not be prepared.”
The lead House sponsor of the measure, Northern Virginia Rep. Don Beyer (D), said that Democrats ought to be selling the legislation aggressively.
“Especially in the swing districts of America, this is not a heavy lift,” he said.
But Beyer said that while 22 House Democrats have joined the legislation as co-sponsors, he has not been able to persuade any Republicans to sign on — not even those in the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, which currently has 34 GOP members.
“They’ve come a long way,” he said, “but not that far.”
That caucus — nicknamed the “Noah’s Ark Caucus” because it requires an equal number of Republicans and Democrats — was created in the last Congress and started with only a handful of members, so its growth in certain ways is significant. On the other hand, it hasn’t produced an action plan or a single piece of legislation, and some environmentalists have suggested that it is merely a fig leaf for Republicans in swing districts who want to appear to be concerned about global warming.
Under the Van Hollen-Beyer legislation, crude oil refineries, petroleum importers, coal mines, coal importers and natural gas suppliers or processors would be required to purchase carbon permits equivalent to the amount of CO2 emitted by covered fuels beginning in 2019. The Treasury Department would auction these permits to those entities, and the proceeds would be used for quarterly dividends to taxpayers.
The bill would aim to gradually reduce CO2 emissions to 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. It would aim to hit a 20 percent reduction by 2020 and a 40 percent reduction by 2030.
The measure would also require the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate within 10 years all sources of greenhouse gases that are anthropogenically emitted, though gases attributable to the production of animals for food would be exempted.
Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network Action Center, noted that the cap-and-trade bill that the House passed in 2009 was 1,600 pages long and difficult for most people — including lawmakers — to digest.
Tidwell called the Van Hollen-Beyer legislation significantly simpler, “an incredibly elegant bill” and “the inevitable solution,”
The 2009 cap-and-trade bill generated plenty of controversy. Running for Senate in 2010, then-West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) famously shot a copy of the legislation with a rifle in a campaign ad. Manchin won and is running for another term this year; he remains a top Republican target.
The dynamic is a little different this cycle. Democrats need to pick up 24 Republican-held House seats to win back control of the majority, and most nonpartisan political handicappers believe that is within the realm of possibility.
But Van Hollen’s task is a little more daunting. Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate, but Democrats are only targeting three GOP-held seats at the moment, in Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee.
At the same time, they are defending 10 seats in states that President Trump won in 2016, including those in Republican strongholds like West Virginia, Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri and Montana. Voters in those states may not want to embrace climate action so quickly.
But Van Hollen believes cap and dividend will eventually meet a different fate than the cap-and-trade measure.
“We believe this particular bill will have elements that resonate with huge segments of the electorate,” he said.