A new select committee on climate is taking shape on Capitol Hill, spurred by the demand from incoming Democratic freshmen for a “Green New Deal” to accelerate the shift to clean energy by 2030. Newly elected Democrats lobbied hard for one of the nine Democratic slots on the committee, while Republicans were mum.
Democrats will announce this week who made the cut. Republicans will then name six members to serve on the 15-member committee. Who the GOP chooses is critical, says Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club: “Will they be climate deniers determined to put sand in the gears, or folks at least willing to explore the issue?”
Who will get the nod has not leaked from either party, which is uncharacteristic for Congress. Chairing the committee will be Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), serving her sixth term representing a district in Tampa, Florida, one of the states that’s been hardest-hit by climate change. She had to evacuate her home last year as Hurricane Irma was bearing down.
Environmental groups are “thrilled” with Castor, says Pierce. She’s got seniority, she’s close to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and she’s committed to identifying solutions and holding events around the country to highlight the impact of climate change.
One of most interesting ironies of this panel is that New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who ran on the Green New Deal in the 2018 election, doesn’t even seem to want a seat on the new committee. She is credited with reviving the idea of a special committee to focus on climate. The original select committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming was created after the Democrats won the House in 2006 and disbanded by the Republicans when they took back the House in 2010.
But the new committee’s not as broad as Ocasio-Cortez’s vision, and she kind of took herself out last week, saying she didn’t want to over-extend herself after landing two plum assignments on House Oversight and Financial Services.
The phrase global warming is now banished from public discourse, replaced by the more benign “climate change,” and former Rep Ed. Markey (D-MA), who chaired the original House committee, is now Massachusetts Senator Markey. In an interview with Boston media after the 2018 election, he hailed “the dawn of a new era” and voiced support for a congressional resolution to create a Select Committee on a Green New Deal to develop a plan for the United States to become greenhouse gas emissions neutral.
Except it’s now the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Not as catchy as Green New Deal, perhaps, but less problematic once Democratic leaders realized all that was encompassed in the slogan that helped AOC topple the fourth-highest ranking Democrat in the House in her primary win over Joe Crowley last September.
The Green New Deal promises to switch to clean, sustainable energy by 2030, two decades ahead of what most experts think might be attainable. It calls for increasing taxes on the wealthy, the retro-fitting of buildings coast to coast, and federal job guarantees for everyone who wants to work.
These are great goals that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. And with no chance of passing a Republican Senate, more seasoned Democrats stung by decades of right-wing tax-and-spent taunts are not eager to jump into the briar patch.
Truth is, once we see who each party selects to serve on the committee, it should be easy to judge what its work output will be. “There’s a wide array of members who ran on strong energy platforms and climate change agendas that Chairman Castor has a long list to work through,” says Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president in charge of energy and environmental solutions at the Center for American Progress. Not a one, not even from the environmental groups, who were lobbied hard by Dems wanting them to put in a good word.
On the Republican side, several more moderate members who belonged to the bipartisan Caucus on Climate Solutions lost their reelection bids. That makes it more likely the GOP will name climate deniers to the new committee, says Goldfuss.
The climate panel will not have the power to subpoena people, and its members will not vote in committee to advance legislation. But that’s OK, says Goldfuss. The idea is to have a dedicated group of members and staff focused laser-like on climate, “upping the ambition and looking across the policy landscape.”
Limiting the panel’s power has the added benefit for the House Democratic leadership of controlling turf battles, especially with Democrat Frank Pallone (D-NJ), a long-time environmental champion, now chairing the powerful House Energy and Commerce committee. He opposed the creation of the select committee as unnecessary since his committee has the principle jurisdiction to advance legislation on climate change.
Pallone has a long track record on the environment. Sources say he has come to terms with the new committee, seeing it as a resource that can identify solutions and feed ideas to his committee to advance legislation. House Energy and Commerce has such a broad mandate, covering everything from health care to telecom, that peace and harmony has a chance to prevail. Castor will retain her seat on Energy and Commerce while chairing the climate committee, which should help ease communications.
The last time the Democrats controlled the House, the select committee headed by Markey helped pass cap-and-trade legislation in 2009 to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The Senate never took it up, the 2010 Tea Party wave returned the House to the Republicans, and the rest is history. Now the Democrats are back in power, the climate crisis is here, and lawmakers have a chance to begin to rewrite history.
Whether this committee does anything of value will depend on Castor, and her willingness to buck the forces that have kept a lid on efforts to combat climate change. She’s already come under fire for accepting campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry, a practice she agreed to end when activists called her out on it. She is highly rated by mainstream environmental groups, but this is a new day, and she will be under scrutiny as much by climate activists as climate deniers.