By John Hart
The “no climate, no deal” approach to stalled infrastructure negotiations backed by U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and other progressives is looking increasingly like U.S. Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) gambit from 2013 to shut down the government until then-President Barack Obama refused to defund his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Taking yourself hostage and begging the other side to not shoot does not tend to end well, although it did make great comedy in Blazing Saddles.
Democrats, of course, have more leverage than Cruz in 2013. Democrats could theoretically pass a $6 trillion package that includes infrastructure, a sweeping climate agenda, Medicaid expansion and more through budget reconciliation but’s it’s unlikely centrist Democrats will walk the plank in unison for such a deal.
In politics, demanding everything is the surest way of ending up with nothing. And congressional Democrats are very close to ending up with nothing.
The Biden administration knows full well that the clock is ticking, and time is not on their side. Administrations tend to do their best work in their first year (i.e. Reagan and Obama). Complicating matters for Biden is the reality that policymakers are far less likely to take risks and “go big” when macroeconomic warning signals like inflation are flashing red.
The Biden administration can find a way forward by persuading the “no climate, no deal” caucus to broaden their definition of success. One opportunity for bipartisan momentum is the UNSHACKLE Act sponsored by U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and U.S. Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY).
If Markey believes the planet is in imminent peril his first step should be to update the nearly 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that is notoriously inefficient. The time to complete NEPA reviews for transportation projects tripled from 2.2 years in the 1970’s to 6.6 years in 2011. NEPA reviews for all projects, including clean energy projects, take 4.5 years to complete which means Biden won’t be to do much of anything on climate until after his term ends. The UNSHACKLE Act would dramatically expedite permitting.
As Cheney argues, “The last Administration made critical revisions to streamline these projects to prevent them from being unnecessarily blocked by bureaucratic red tape … [T]he legislation introduced today would reform the NEPA process so federal agencies, and state and local governments are empowered to carry out the Act’s original goal in a timely and cost-effective manner.”
NEPA reform would be great for the economy and environment. As our Vice President of Public Policy Nick Loris notes, there is a strong correlation between economic freedom and environmental performance. Free economies – countries that embrace pro-innovation policies and principles like regulatory efficiency, the rule of law and smaller government – tend to be twice as clean as less free economies.
President Biden working with Liz Cheney to codify a Trump administration reform is the sort of convention-defying, unlikely alliance that could shake up negotiations and inspire a breakthrough. No infrastructure deal would be bad for America, and both parties. Progressives should seize the opening from Cheney and Lee and choose progress over standing still.