The congressional leaders who negotiated $1.1 trillion federal spending bill – dubbed the “CRomnibus” – must not have known they were in for a fight.
But when Public Citizen and other public interest allies got hold of the 1,600-page bill and saw that it contained a bevy of atrocious policy riders that had nothing to do with funding the government, the fight was coming.
The take-it-or-leave-it budget – including the poison pill provisions that Public Citizen opposed – did ultimately pass. The fight for its passage is instructive for how public interest advocates can wield power in the coming years, even as majorities in Congress seem determined to deliver a return on Corporate America’s Citizens United-enabled election investments.
The worst that could have happened would have been if the giveaways to corporations and the super rich had been accepted without a fight.
Thankfully, that’s not what happened.
We called on grassroots activists like you to act – to email and call your members of Congress – and you acted.
Tens of thousands of outraged citizens made it known that they would not accept a budget bill that allows millionaires and billionaires to have more influence in our elections and that puts taxpayers on the hook for Wall Street’s recklessness.
And then – hearing the outrage of tens of thousands of constituents across the country – principled members of Congress (of both major parties) fought the bipartisan backroom deal.
We’ve just seen the worst that Washington has to offer with the “cromnibus” government spending bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last night.
Instead of Congress passing a clean funding bill along lines that were previously agreed to and had bipartisan acceptance, Big Business exercised its insider influence and took advantage of an artificially rushed and secretive process to cut deals to enhance the political influence of the super-rich, put taxpayers on the hook – again – for Wall Street recklessness and make our roads less safe.
Moneyed interests maneuvered to eviscerate campaign spending rules, so that a super-rich couple may now contribute up to $3 million to a national political party in a single (two-year) election cycle. It’s a certainty that this move will be followed up by calls to “level the playing field” and permit the same monstrous contributions to candidates and political committees.
Wall Street called on its friends to include a Citigroup-drafted provision that would roll back a key Dodd-Frank measure that was designed to prevent Big Banks from using taxpayer-insured money to bet in the derivatives markets. With the top four banks responsible for 93 percent of derivatives activities in the United States, there is zero question about which entities will benefit. Nor who will pay; when the next financial crisis comes – as it will, as certainly as the calendar changes – taxpayers will be forced to pay for Wall Street gambling on derivatives.
At the behest of the trucking industry, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins included in the spending bill a provision to override rules to reduce truck driver fatigue, which risks the lives of truckers and other drivers.
These are only some of the known giveaways in the spending bill. It will probably take many weeks, or longer, before all of the industry deals are discovered.
As serious and troubling as are these measures, there is reason to fear worse is to come. Even though it opposed many of these harmful provisions, the White House pushed for approval of the overall spending deal, which had to overcome substantial opposition from members of Congress in both parties. If this is the kind of “bipartisanship” we’re going to see in the coming two years, the country is facing dire prospects indeed.
On Monday we submitted our comments to the EPA on its draft Clean Power Plan. Roughly two million people told the EPA they support the plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. We strongly support the plan, and we think the agency should make it much stronger and even more consumer friendly. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, we can advance those two goals at the same time. Fighting climate change is good for consumers. Fighting it more aggressively—with a focus on low-cost solutions—is even better. The short version of our recommendations is that the Clean Power Plan should use much more energy efficiency and renewables, much less natural gas (if any), and likely no nuclear power.
We care about climate change because it will be devastating to consumers—to all Americans, that is—and especially to the poor, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations. We also care about protecting consumer budgets—again particularly those of low-income households. Consumers usually pay for upgrades or other changes in electricity infrastructure on their utility bills, and for this reason opponents of climate change policy have been arguing that the Clean Power Plan will hurt consumers. Cutting carbon emissions will cost money, they argue, straining household budgets.
We found the opposite. The strongest tools to reduce carbon emissions from power plants are actually the least expensive and the most beneficial to consumers. If the EPA were to craft the rule using a simple organizing principle—cut carbon incrementally by using the lowest-cost strategy to displace the most carbon-intensive electricity generation—the rule would be much stronger and less expensive. Here are the key points:
- Treat efficiency and renewables as replacing fossil-fuels, in order of the most carbon intensive. The proposal assumes that new natural gas generation will replace coal. But it treats energy efficiency and renewables as merely adding to the pool of available power rather than displacing coal or natural gas. That doesn’t make sense. The point of boosting efficiency and renewables is to displace fossil fuels—and in fact that’s what usually happens in the market because fossil-fuel generation usually has higher operating costs. This simple common sense change would strengthen the rule a great deal.
- Strengthen the efficiency targets significantly. Energy efficiency is by far the lowest-cost way to cut carbon emissions, but the EPA overestimates its cost by 60 to 100 percent. It also sets its targets too low. The agency expects us to increase efficiency by just 1.5 percent annually even though the best states are already pursuing gains of 2 percent or more. And it considers only utility efficiency programs like weatherization of homes, leaving out things like 1building codes and appliance standards. Boost the efficiency targets, and you get a much more powerful, less expensive rule.
- Strengthen the renewables targets significantly. As UCS has demonstrated, the EPA makes similar mistakes with renewables. States can add nearly double the amount of renewables that the proposal projects, at much lower cost.
- Curb the use of natural gas. The plan’s reliance on natural gas is misplaced for multiple reasons. First, because of methane emissions, switching from coal to natural gas may not have any climate benefit for more than 100 years. We need to fix the problem well before then. Second, the proposal’s reliance on natural gas will lead to more environmentally hazardous fracking, which the EPA should not be encouraging, and put additional pressure on natural gas prices, which are already projected to rise 23 percent by 2030, straining household budgets. Finally, the EPA underestimates the cost of using natural gas to replace coal because it overlooks that we need to phase out natural gas soon too. Natural gas emits less carbon than coal, but still very significant amounts, and we need to reduce carbon emissions to zero as quickly as possible. The real cost of switching to natural gas is the cost of the current change plus the expense of moving to renewables in a few years. We would save a lot of money by going straight to renewables.
- Curb (likely eliminate) the use of nuclear power. Nuclear power is usually an exorbitant boondoggle that consumers get stuck subsidizing through their electricity bills. The EPA’s proposal gets the cost of nuclear power wrong in nearly every way. It underestimates the costs of subsidizing existing nuclear plants that can’t make money. It omits the multi-billion-dollar cost of completing nuclear generators currently under-construction. (These projects nearly always run way behind schedule and cost billions more than budgeted; we would save a lot of money by scrapping them even mid-construction.) It also fails to account for the cost of storing nuclear waste, a problem we still haven’t solved but which will cost billions, and ignores the possibility of catastrophic accidents. As of late 2012, Tokyo Electric Power Co. was estimating that the cleanup from the Fukushima disaster would cost up to $137 billion. It’s hard to find space for nuclear power in sound climate policy when every other option is cheaper and efficiency and renewables can accomplish so much.
The Clean Power Plan already represents a significant step in fighting climate change, and it will make consumers far better off. For those reasons, we told the EPA that we strongly support the plan. But we need to do better—and we can.