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|Two major pieces of climate legislation are currently in play in Congress, with a working deadline at the end of September. Above, the U.S. Capitol. Photo: Travis Wise, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.|
TipSheet: Tracking the Big Climate Bills — An Infrastructure/Reconciliation Breakdown
By Joseph A. Davis
Some people call measures now moving through Congress the most important climate legislation in over a decade. Others wish it dead.
Either way, it’s news for environmental journalists if only because we don’t know which it will be. TipSheet has help for you to keep track.
Currently in play in Congress, and distilled into two pieces of legislation, are the climate agendas of the Biden administration, Democratic factions and many activist groups. One bill is a bipartisan infrastructure bill, the other a reconciliation bill. Both matter. And their fates are tied.
Since the action is ongoing now in House and Senate committees, a good way to stay up to date is to follow the action daily via EJToday Headlines.
The infrastructure bill was the product of negotiations between groups of Senate Dems and GOPers. It passed the Senate with an impressive 69-30 vote on Aug. 10. The measure largely focused on traditional “hard” infrastructure like roads, bridges and waterways, but also has many climate-friendly features like electric vehicle chargers and mass transit.
Estimates of its cost (often cited as $1 trillion) vary because some of the money is unspent COVID-19 relief money.
The reconciliation bill is a much larger package, often priced at $3.5 trillion, which uses a perplexing budget procedure to bypass the Senate filibuster. Unlike the infrastructure bill, it only requires 51 votes (including Vice President Kamala Harris) to get through the Senate.
That’s still a tall order, requiring every single Democrat to be on board. They are not. Not yet.
Complicated climate provisions
The reconciliation package is procedurally much more complicated than a regular bill.
Each chamber passes a resolution setting broad dollar targets. Then an array of committees fill in the details. Then the chambers pass the accumulated details again. And finally the two chambers somehow reconcile any differences. Only then does it go to the president, who we think in this case will sign it.
The Senate passed the first-pass reconciliation bill (Senate Continuing Resolution 14) on Aug. 11 by a 50-49 vote. It contains a number of social equity provisions, like childcare, which Dems also think of as infrastructure. Republicans oppose many of those provisions.
The reconciliation bill contains some
of the more politically challenging
climate provisions Dems hope for.
The reconciliation bill (still in outline form) contains some of the more politically challenging climate provisions Dems hope for.
One example is the “clean energy standard” (one of several names and rebrandings) that essentially requires electric utilities to get a certain percent of their energy from climate-clean sources by certain dates.
Others include an array of tax incentives aimed at inducing utilities, industries and consumers to adopt green energy (low emission) technologies, or measures aimed at reducing methane emissions or agricultural emissions.
One more provision is for a Civilian Climate Corps (a kind of New Deal CCC retread), which blends climate goals with social equity goals favored by the Dems’ young progressive faction.
Many of these measures involve collecting fines, fees and taxes — or distributing monetary incentives — so it makes sense to put them in a bill that is ostensibly about balancing the federal budget.
Dizzying political dance
An exquisite and dizzying political dance has evolved this year over this pair of bills.
The infrastructure bill has support from GOPers and “centrist” Dems, while the more ambitious reconciliation (which originated in the Senate Budget Committee chaired by Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., himself) is beloved by many mainstream Bidenesque Dems and especially the young, Green New Deal progressive wing.
Progressives have declared they will not support the infrastructure bill unless the reconciliation bill is passed simultaneously. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has supported this approach and has the procedural chops to make it work. If the votes are there.
Many GOPers seem to hope Dems won’t muster the votes and will have to fall back on passing infrastructure only.
Watch the committees
The working deadline for finishing much of this byplay is the end of September. This is not just because Pelosi has decreed it (she has). It is also because the federal government runs out of money (and risks shutdown) as the fiscal year expires. And the federal debt limit expires then, too.
There will be a rush of committee action in
both chambers as Oct. 1 approaches. This
will set many of the details that will constitute
any climate legislation in this Congress.
There will be a rush of committee action in both chambers as Oct. 1 approaches. This will set many of the details that will constitute any climate legislation in this Congress.
There are various ways to track committee action. If you have access to subscriptions, much of it is covered in specialized publications like Bloomberg Environment and E&E News. You could also scour quality media like Reuters and The New York Times. You could also follow Society of Environmental Journalists feeds like EJToday Headlines.
But you can also follow the committees directly. Every committee has a website and almost all offer livestreamed video of the “markup” or “business meeting” sessions where they decide things by voting (you can also go in person).
Most committees also offer press releases and other announcements of what they have done or plan to do (although these are not always up to date and aren’t always unbiased.) Typically each party has its own press operation within a given committee.
Below are some places to start, selected based on those with the most climate impact.
- House Energy and Commerce Committee: This panel soft-launched its reconciliation plans with releases on Sept. 9. The panel’s $150 billion plan is a stand-in for the Clean Electricity Standard, using a system of grants and fines to prod utilities to move toward climate-friendly energy. Markup began on Sept. 13. Coverage on The Hill and The New York Times. Check out the Dem newsroom, the GOP newsroom and the committee meeting livestream.
- House Natural Resources Committee: This panel finished a markup on reconciliation late Sept. 9. The product totaled $25.6 billion. It included bans on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and some other Arctic lands. It also included $3 billion for the Civilian Climate Corps and $9.5 billion for Great Lakes and coastal restoration and climate resiliency. Further coverage from Reuters and Bloomberg News. Check out the Dem newsroom, the GOP newsroom and the committee meeting livestream.
- House Ways and Means Committee: There hasn’t been much public-facing activity from this tax-writing panel about reconciliation yet. They will probably play a key role on energy tax breaks (green or not). But the lobbying has been fast and furious, as E&E coverage suggests. Check out the Dem newsroom, the GOP newsroom and the committee meeting livestream.
- House Agriculture Committee: This panel could do a lot about climate. For years, politics have favored “incentives” (read dollars) over regulation. Agriculture’s role in climate involves animal methane, soil carbon, trees and more. Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., signalled Sept. 10 that he favors spending on ag research, rural job-promotion and forestry. See coverage on Progressive Farmer, Agri-Pulse, Tri-State Livestock News and info from Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa. Check out the Dem newsroom, the GOP newsroom and the committee meeting livestream.
- House Science, Space and Technology Committee: The Science committee completed reconciliation markup Sept. 9. It divided its $45.5 billion among various science agencies. The amount included some funding for climate science and clean energy R&D. Coverage from Space Policy Online, SpaceNews and info from the American Institute of Physics. Check out the Dem newsroom, the GOP newsroom and the committee meeting livestream.
- House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee: This panel, which is all about infrastructure, was scheduled to undertake its reconciliation markup on Sept. 14. Its previous bills for transportation and water spending were to some degree absorbed into the bipartisan infrastructure bill, adding green and efficiency programs to hard pork. It is unclear what additional climate measures may go into reconciliation. Check out the Dem newsroom, the GOP newsroom and the committee meeting livestream.
- House Financial Services Committee: This key panel released the vision for reconciliation from Chairman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., on Sept. 9 — with the vast majority of the funds going to support public housing (some of that could be green). Also included were $10 billion for lead hazard remediation, $6 billion for green preservation of HUD housing and $5 billion for the National Flood Insurance Program. Markup was scheduled to begin Sept. 13. Check out the Dem newsroom, the GOP newsroom and the committee meeting livestream.
[Editor’s Note: To keep up on committee activities during this critical period, check out our EJToday Headlines service posted each weekday or the new @EJTodayNews Twitter feed, updated frequently.]
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 32. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.