The surprising progressiveness of Iowa (surprising at least to me, used to thinking of Iowa as one of those flyover states) was part of the discussion during the March 30 Let’s Talk: Iowa conference call. James Rice, a member of Senator Chuck Grassley’s staff (R), and Eldon Boes, who works for Senator Tom Harkin (D), spoke together on the call about the priority of a climate bill in the Senate now that the health care bill has passed, what type of carbon control policy the Senators support, and their opinion on EPA regulation of greenhouse gases.
After the terrible fight to get the health care policy bill through the Congress, the President and the Congress have to decide on the next big issue to tackle of the many out there. At the beginning of the presidency and at the Copenhagen conference in December, most environmental activists probably thought climate change legislation would be next on the list, but there are so many other issues fighting for attention that the next focus has not yet become clear. Boes reinforced this view, saying that while a climate bill is high on Senator Harkin’s list, other issues like regulatory reform for the financial system, immigration reform, and the appropriations bills are also of importance. Part of the reason for the slow movement of all policies, stated Boes, is the lack of function in the Senate. Unless something is done about the filibuster provisions, used widely by Republicans in this Presidency and Democrats in the previous to block many legislative actions, this Senate deadlock will continue into the foreseeable future. Rice concurred to some extent about the ambiguity of the place of climate on the agenda. Pointing out that minority party senators have no role in setting this agenda, he agreed that initially climate was the next big target after health care, but regulatory reform seems to be cutting ahead in line.
The discussion then turned to whether a carbon cap and trade, carbon tax, or cap and dividend program is the best solution. The last few major bills have all focused on cap-and-trade as the primary solution, but the attitude in the Senate seems to be moving away from this view, at least from the point of view of these Iowan Senators. Both staffers stressed that an international commitment is key to addressing climate change. Boes mentioned Harkin’s support for any type of federal policy that addresses climate policy on the right path, but any policy needs to negotiate with and have reasonable expectations of other nations. In essence, we should pass a climate bill, but only if other nations are going to do the same. James, from the Republican side, seemed to lean more towards supporting a carbon tax system that would be overseen by the federal government. He claimed that much of this climate change debate has not been about the reality of climate change and the need to do something about it. Instead, Senate and House debate has focused on the best mechanism to address climate change. In my opinion though, anyone who has listened to the rantings of climate deniers like Senator Inhofe (R-OK) might find that viewpoint a little hard to believe. Senator Grassley feels that we need to START with an international agreement because “if we don’t have binding comparable agreements from other industrialized nations, it will make us economically uncompetitive”. In other words, his rep is using the level playing field argument. Politicians who make the level playing field argument are pulling a slick one on US citizens. The US already enjoys so many advantages compared to the rest of the world that a level playing field would never come to exist. Even if we focus only a level playing field from the point of view of climate legislation, it is really unreasonable to expect that the world community will fall for the trap of making an international agreement before the United States has committed. Anyone who reads news about the US cannot miss the arguments and deadlock that goes on in our Senate – and who can forget the entire debacle of the Kyoto Protocol. Unsupported by the United States Senate, even though the Vice President was a fervent supporter, the Kyoto Protocol languished until Australia changed governments. The US government is so afraid of giving up any sovereignty that it has failed to ratify many of the important international agreements of the last fifty years, from the Kyoto Protocol to the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. Without prior action by the United States, to lay the groundwork for an international agreement, the Senate will most likely reject any other international treaty (unless the political structure and party makeup drastically changes in the next few years).
Later in the conversation however, this issue was brought up again with exactly this critique. Professor Bennett at the University of Iowa asked whether the US would have a better bargaining position if we passed legislation first. Both Senators disagreed with that statement. James clarified that Grassley thinks we should all move at the same time, because if we lead the way, we’ll have no bargaining chip. If we are the first to move, we can no longer threaten inaction if others refuse to act.
Robert Grant, from St. Ambrose College, posed a controversial question in a corn state like Iowa: Can we switch from corn-based ethanol to more appropriate biomass? As a good corn state representative should, apparently Harkin thinks that we should be developing commercial advanced biofuels (algae, cellulosic, etc), but that corn ethanol is a “darn good fuel”. Boes backed this up with a little story: If you take a list of the chemical ingredients in corn ethanol and compare it the list in gasoline, one is a few lines, one is a few pages. To Boes, this is proof that the idea that ethanol is worse than gasoline is misinformation. To realists, or at least to me, corn ethanol is still at best only a third or fourth best option.
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