President Biden’s scaled back Build Back Better agenda—not so accurately rebranded as the “Inflation Reduction Act”—is set to arrive on the Senate floor as Republicans may be losing momentum across the country. Senate candidates continue to struggle in states like Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania; and key House races, such as Michigan’s 3rd District, where John Gibbs defeated Peter Meijer, are shifting toward Democrats. Come November, it may become clear that election denial has consequences. Meanwhile, as Chris Stirewalt argues, the surge of low-propensity voters who turned out in Kansas to vote on abortion hints at trouble for Republicans.
In a weekend session at the end of a bad week, it will be tempting for Republicans to ridicule the tax-and-spend progressive excess in the bill but let Biden have his win and call it a day. Instead, Senate Republicans should use the rules of budget reconciliation, which allow for unlimited amendments, to offer a smart and aggressive amendment strategy. This debate is an important opportunity for Republicans to define not just what they are against, but what they are for when it comes to energy and climate policy.
Senate Democrats are using the playbook they use on every issue—give Republicans a bill they’d never vote for (i.e., one that raises taxes, beefs up the IRS, and expands Obamacare) and demagogue them for not “caring” about climate change. Republicans should turn the tables. Just as the DCCC recently showed that some Democrats are more interested in protecting Democrats than democracy when they backed election conspiracy theorists in midterm primaries, some Democrats are also more interested in protecting their positions than the planet.
Senate Republicans should start by stripping out the tax increases that would slow the innovation that’s required to develop clean energy and ask how spending $80 billion on IRS enforcement and $64 billion on Obamacare subsidies will lower greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of offering a blanket “no” on the climate provision, Republicans should highlight what they’d consider supporting and then force Democrats to say “no” to spending offsets rather than tax increases as a means of financing those investments.
Republicans could even offer a planet-saving amendment to deflect the extinction-level climate asteroid some progressive say is coming with big investments in nuclear energy that are paid for by responsibly downsizing the administrative state. In his “Nuclear Salvation” essay, MIT’s Kerry Emanuel suggests a shift to nuclear would cost about $100 billion annually, which could be pulled from existing agency budgets. Let Leonardo DiCaprio and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) oppose that.
Republicans also have many constructive ideas on planting trees, permitting reform, and responsible domestic energy production that Democrats should be forced to vote against. Republicans probably can’t win any of these amendments, but they can dramatically increase the other side’s cost of winning and let Americans know what they’re for in the process.
As our organization recently showed in a June poll in the key swing states of Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan, Democrats are out of step with their own base on climate and energy policy. Republicans have an opportunity to take command of an issue that’s increasingly important to Americans, especially younger voters. Consider a few of our key findings.
The “everything but fossil fuels” progressive dogma lives loudly among Democrat political elites, yet 71 percent of Republicans and 63 percentof Democrats prefer an “all of the above” approach; 66 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Democrats support nuclear energy; and 62 percent of Republicans and 49 percent of Democrats support fracking, while only 32 percent of Democrats oppose fracking. Instead of President Biden asking OPEC to produce more oil, regular folks would prefer to use what we have here.
The poll also found that while Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WVirginia) and Chuck Schumer (D-New York) are working to sell their colleagues on a vote over reforms to the permitting process at an undetermined later date (i.e., probably never), voters want Congress to start with permitting reform now. By a 2-to-1 margin, voters prefer deregulation over new spending or tax increases. Two-thirds of voters want Congress to lift or reform outdated regulations to speed up the deployment of new clean energy technology, while only 31 percent are open to new or additional spending that is paid for by tax increases or borrowing.
Voters also want Congress to reduce and recycle government waste instead of creating more. When we asked voters how they want to fund clean energy research, 49 percent favored spending offsets, 29 percent wanted only private sector spending, 13 percent favored federal borrowing, and only 9 percent supported higher taxes. Voters also don’t seem to be impressed by Congress’ decision to restart the earmark favor factory: 39 percent of voters oppose the return of earmarks, while just 21 percent support their return.
The bill’s authors no doubt understand that while climate change continues to creep up the list of voter priorities, it’s still dwarfed by overall concerns about inflation and gas prices. Our poll showed that 51 percent of voters view reducing inflation and gas prices as the most important issue while only 9 percent said the same of climate change. And calling a bill “inflation reduction” doesn’t make it so. A Wharton study found that the bill won’t reduce inflation, while the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation found it will increase taxes for people earning less than $400,000, thereby violating President Biden’s campaign pledge. Democrats claim to be deeply serious about “the science” yet conveniently ignore math that doesn’t advance their ideological goals.
It’s true that some polls, such as a recent Pew poll, suggest popular support for corporate tax increases. But a deeper look shows that when voters realize the costs will be passed on to them, they won’t be happy. Our poll found that 76 percent of Republicans and Democrats are not willing to pay more than $10 a month to fight climate change.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-California) Taiwan visit inadvertently boosted the GOP’s case by showing the world a belligerent China can’t be trusted to care about climate change or its status as the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter. In fact, China has already said it will no longer engage with the U.S. on climate because of Pelosi’s visit. Of course, few policymakers except for John Kerry ever thought China was serious.
Republicans should use their floor time to argue that we’re not going to beat China by becoming like China. Top-down authoritarianism isn’t a sound way to reduce emissions. When it comes to forcing China’s hand, our poll found that voters tend to prefer a Reagan-esque realism approach to more isolationism. A majority of voters (54 percent) do support a more protectionist trade policy toward China, but 62 percent support a NATO of the Pacific and more muscular policy of containment while 69 percent want to beat China with an economic freedom agenda focused on promoting innovation at home and accessing our own critical minerals.
Fortunately, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) has given Senate Republicans a head start on amendment ideas through his energy, climate and conservation task force. The Climate and Freedom Agenda authored by Nick Loris, VP of Public Policy at C3 Solutions, contains enough specifics to keep the Senate floor busy for weeks.
As my former boss, the late Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okloahoma), showed, amendment hardball works. He called these exercises “teaching moments.” Years of wearing down big-spending senators with creative amendments that exposed agendas and forced hard choices paid off. In 2011, conservatives got an earmark ban that lasted a decade while the Budget Control Act led to the first real year-on-year spending reduction since the end of the Korean War. In Washington, that’s like making the river that fills the swamp run backward.
This bill isn’t the last word on climate and energy policy. It’s one marker in what will be a generational fight and struggle between freedom and authoritarianism and those who favor bottom-up innovation over top-down command and control decision-making. Republicans should use this debate to play offense and offer a “teaching moment” that contrasts governing styles. Voters, including primary voters, want Republicans to offer climate and energy solutions and prefer those candidates. Science and math are on the side of conservatives and against the deficit deniers. Free economies are twice as clean as less free economies. This is a fight conservatives can win and should run toward, not from.
*This piece originally appeared in The Dispatch.