On May 15, House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Henry Waxman and subcommittee chair Edward Markey unveiled the American Clean Energy and Security Act, addressing a priority of President Obama's reform agenda: the drive for new energy. The bill was both pathbreaking and disappointing, with major compromises from its initial draft. Cuts in carbon emissions that had been pegged at the international standard of 20 percent by 2020 (from 1990 levels) were reduced to 4 percent. Mandates on renewable energy for utilities were slashed. Standards on new coal plants were weakened. Instead of auctioning off pollution permits under a cap-and-trade system (raising revenue to relieve low-income ratepayers and spur investment in clean energy), the bill gives away 85 percent of the permits, with coal utilities, oil refineries and energy-intensive industries like steel getting huge handouts. The subsidies and deals bloated the bill to more than 900 pages, and Republicans introduced so many amendments that Democrats had to hire a speed-reader to get through them. The bill's fate in the Senate is even more uncertain.
Duke Energy, the Edison Electric Institute and various other energy producers praised the bill, along with some conservative coal-state Democrats. The environmental community split: Al Gore, Environmental Defense Fund and others endorsed the bill as an important first step, while Public Citizen, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace questioned whether it would spur action toward renewable energy in the short term. "This bill has been seriously undermined by the lobbying of industries more concerned with profits than the plight of our planet," Greenpeace declared in announcing its opposition.
The climate bill isn't the only piece of legislation being compromised. Although the major banks are on life support, they were still able to block "cramdown," the linchpin of Obama's mortgage plan, which gives bankruptcy judges the right to reset mortgages of families facing foreclosure. That led Senate majority whip Richard Durbin to fume that the banks "own the place." Credit card companies are less popular than Somali pirates, but they managed to fend off any limit on interest rates they can charge customers.
All of the signature economic reforms the president has promoted--from healthcare to employee free choice--are under siege. Without a grassroots uprising that challenges business as usual in Washington, we aren't likely to get the change we were promised, much less the change we need.
The Reform Moment
It shouldn't be that tough. All the stars are aligned for launching the greatest era of progressive reform since the 1960s. We face stark crises that require fundamental structural reform. We have a powerful, popular president with a mandate for change--and a majority of Americans yearning for it. Catastrophes have left conservative ideas discredited, and Republicans are leaderless and divided.
Both houses of Congress enjoy large Democratic majorities with arguably the most liberal caucuses in four decades, if not longer. Nancy Pelosi, the strong liberal Speaker of the House, has helped to define and drive reform (one reason she is the target of withering Republican attacks over her comments on the CIA). In the Senate, normally the graveyard of change, Arlen Specter's switch and Al Franken's eventual seating will give Democrats the sixty-vote supermajority needed to shut down filibusters and move legislation. This doesn't resolve the difficulty of rounding up sixty votes, but it should concentrate the mind of the majority leader, Harry Reid. Democrats can no longer blame obstructionist Republicans for their inability to move. They will be expected to deliver.
Obama, whose watchword is pragmatism and whose gift is for compromise, has clearly grasped the moment. Whether you consider him a "pragmatic conservative," as Martin Wolf of the Financial Times suggests, or "the world's best salesman of socialism," in Republican Senator Jim DeMint's words, the president has been clear that "we cannot go back to the bubble-and-bust economy that led us to this point." We can't "recover" by restoring the old economy--and we should not want to.
Spurning the conventional advice of Beltway pundits to limit his agenda, Obama has acted boldly in response to the crisis. His recovery plan, despite being weakened in the Senate, includes the greatest increase in support for the poor since the Great Society and doubles the federal education budget. His budget calls for dramatic investment in core areas like healthcare and education. (In fact, it is caution, not audacity, that may most retard any recovery and haunt the president, as exemplified by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's bank bailout.)
Obama has also championed issues that progressives have put on the agenda. He has pledged to move forward on new energy, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), common-sense immigration reform, improved funding for education from pre-K to college and reregulating the financial sector to make it smaller and less destructive.
Together these reforms begin to define a new direction for the country, first steps toward a more just and sustainable economy. Needless to say, the administration's ability to chart that course will be largely determined by the path of the recession and the success of the administration's recovery plan, not to mention Afghanistan and Iraq. But these core economic reforms are the centerpiece of Obama's progressive promise.