A First Test: Climate Change Vote to Test Obama’s Soft Power

The big day has arrived for the Waxman-Markey climate bill, expected to go to the floor for a vote in the House today. A quick perusal of the Op-Ed pages this morning adds little to the debate.

NYT and The Boston Globe both offer tepid – and somewhat mournful – endorsements of the legislation, citing its symbolic significance while noting the well-publicized giveaways and leaning heavily on CBO and EPA studies out this week that downplay consumer cost increases as a result of carbon charges. A lot of “the costs of inaction, of clinging to a broken energy policy, will dwarf the costs of acting now” kind of palaver in both. Quite frankly, they are so superficial as to be disappointing — kind of like the bill itself in the minds of many.

The LA Times editorial heats things up a little more, taking a position that corresponds a little more closely with the geographical battle lines that have been drawn in the bill’s mark-up and amendment process. LAT lambastes “the farm lobby” for carving out subsidies and weakening standards to the detriment of the bill, the country and the climate. Not exactly a profile in courage for the newspaper in the country’s second-largest urban area with the most celebrated emission-induced pollution-choked climate to attack farmers. But, you can’t blame them for taking the position. All politics is local, still accusing farmers of being “the shadowy Illuminati who rule Washington,” seems a little over the top.

WSJ – predictably or surprisingly, I’m not sure – goes with a climate change doubter in Kimberley Strassel’s column on the big day…and the best one she could find is an Australian PM. Not too persuasive.

From the same side of the fence, IBD calls Waxman-Markey the largest tax increase in US history and predicts the bill will make “Smoot-Hawley look like a speed bump.” In spite of the many doomsday economic predictions cited in the editorial, it never delivers a tangible look at the Smoot-Hawley comparison, perhaps the most significant unexplored discussion around the bill. What if other countries do not follow suit? What if Copenhagen doesn’t bring the kind of reform that Kyoto could not deliver? Will the US have put itself into a competitive rut because of the real or financial limits that carbon caps place on our economy? Conservatives have adopted a couple of cutesy phrases for the bill’s carbon provision (IBD favors “cap-and-tax,” I like conservative talker Laura Ingraham’s “knee cap our trade” gloss), but with distractions in the form of GOP dalliances from Sanford and Ensign this past week, the Right has not been hitting the trade implications of the bill hard enough, especially not the amendments that — apparently in violation of Nafta and WTO provisions — will add tariffs to imports from nations that do not cap carbon in an effort to prevent “leakage.”

All in all, this morning’s Op-Ed pages do not deliver a lot of surprises. Most analysis breaks down along the same partisan lines that have been drawn in the House debate. I haven’t had the chance to wade through the global editorial coverage of the bill yet — or find some of it amidst Michael Jackson coverage on international news site US pages — but, it is important to remember that the Senate still has to act before anything becomes a concerted US approach.

On that front, the math doesn’t look good. While the House bill faced high political hurdles from agricultural states and groaning industrial areas of the country, in the House those less populous places don’t have the same sway as they do in a Senate body that has two votes for each state. We’ve seen the compromise that the bill required in this setting; when California, Massachusetts, New York and other big states are put on an even playing field with Wyoming, West Virginia, Montana, the Dakotas, the Upper Midwest and the coal heavy Southeast, is it even conceivable that a consensus bill that actually caps carbon can emerge, or will offsets and alternative compliance methods make whatever reform is contemplated little more than illusory?

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