David Roberts+ Your Authors @drvox Seattleite transplanted from Tennessee; now blogging for vox.com/ about energy politics. Climate hawk, deficit dove. Not a doctor. May. 28, 2019 5 min read + Your Authors

My new piece: if they win in 2020, Democrats hope to pass a bunch of climate policy through a process called budget reconciliation, which only requires a majority vote in the Senate. Here’s a deep dive on reconciliation: what it means, what it can do.  https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/5/28/18636759/climate-change-budget-reconciliation-democrats?utm_campaign=drvox&utm_content=chorus&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter 

1. How can I convince you to read a long piece on a set of obscure congressional procedural issues? I probably can't! But I'm gonna try, with this here tweet thread. Let's talk about budget reconciliation -- quite possibly the only hope for substantial climate policy in 2020.

2. So. Assume that Dems win both houses of Congress & the presidency in 2020. Assume, further, that they do NOT scrap the filibuster. Senate Rs will filibuster everything, Dems won't be able to muster 60 votes for anything, and ... that's it, right? Total gridlock? Perhaps not!

3. There is one kind of bill - a budget reconciliation (BR) bill - that can pass with a simple majority in the Senate. BR is not supposed to be used to implement new policy, but since it's the only passable bill, more & more policy has been shoved into it in recent years.

4. Bush Jr.'s tax cuts were passed through BR. So were Trump's tax cuts. BR is also what allowed Obamacare to finally pass (not the main bill but ... oh, it's a long story). Lots of Dems (mostly quietly) are discussing what sort of climate policy might be able to pass via BR.

5. The titular purpose of BR is to reconcile federal budget numbers. (See piece for more.) Given that, BR is governed by a number of restrictions, most notably the "Byrd rule," named after Robert Byrd. It imposes several limitations; for our purposes, 2 in particular matter.

6. First, a BR provision must materially affect federal spending or revenue -- it must raise or lower one or the other -- and that budgetary effect cannot be merely "incidental" to the purpose of the provision. (More on that in a second.)

7. Second, the BR bill as a whole cannot increase the deficit outside the term of the budget window (typically 10 years) covered by the bill. So: provisions in BR must affect dollars & cents & all new spending must be offset by new revenue. That's the boundaries of BR.

8. Within those boundaries, what's possible on climate change? A lot! Just about any new spending you can think of -- a "greener American Recover Act, on steroids" as @evanlweber put it to me. As long as you can raise revenue (by, say, reversing FF subsidies) you can spend it.

9. Also, the tax code is fair game & there's TONS to be done there -- new/bigger/better tax credits for EVs, renewable energy, carbon capture, regenerative agriculture, long-distance transmission, you name it. Reverse tax advantages for fossil fuels. Etc.

10. BR *cannot* create new rules or regulations, only money stuff. But there are ways to "translate" regs into money stuff -- eg, a program that, for a given appliance, imposes a fee on manufacturers below average efficiency & offers grants to those above. Same effect, basically.

11. If you got really creative, you could replicate the effect of just about *any* regulation using a system of tax fees & credits. If Dems get really really ambitious about pushing boundaries, they can probably squeeze something approaching comprehensive climate policy into BR.

12. However! Rs will no doubt object to many of these provisions, claiming that they violate the Byrd rule's "incidental" language -- eg, the appliance fees/credits are clearly an attempt to boost standards; the budget effects are incidental.

13. Those disputes will go to the Senate Parliamentarian (Elizabeth MacDonough). She will make a judgement & share it with the chair, who will then issue a ruling. Those rulings can be appealed, but it takes 60 votes to overturn them.

14. If Ds wanted to declare max partisan warfare, they could instruct the VP of a Dem admin (serving as chair of Senate) to simply disregard the Parliamentarian's judgments & rule in favor of Dems. Or, there are ways to overturn the rulings via simple majority (long story).

15. So at least in theory, Dems could "go nuclear" via BR & effectively pass anything they want to pass with a simple majority. However, they are highly unlikely to do so. It would require every single Dem voting to "break the rules," over & over again.

16. One thing many Senate Dems like about the filibuster (& about the Byrd rule) is that it helps cover over disputes within the caucus; it makes it easy to blame all failures on the other side. Using BR to impose majoritarian policymaking would expose all those fissures.

17. Basically, abusing the BR process to pass ambitious climate policy would require procedural ruthlessness & lack of shame from Ds. And if they had that kind of fire ... why wouldn't they just scrap the damn filibuster? It's easier/cleaner/more defensible.

18. So: BR might be used to pass some good climate spending, but Ds are unlikely to push it beyond that. That's far short of adequate climate policy, but it does tend to be the *popular* part, so maybe it could be used to expand the D map & prepare for more policy to follow.

19. Final note: D activists tend to assume that if the filibuster were scrapped (or BR opened up), enabling Ds to legislate with a simple majority, good things would happen. But I suspect that the universe of good policy (climate or otherwise) that could get 51 D Senate votes ...

20. ... is much smaller than we like to think. That's why Senate Ds like the filibuster -- it hides that fact. They like avoiding awkward votes. If they're going to grow some gonads & get real stuff done, it's going to take a LOT of pushing from activists. </fin>

You can follow @drvox.


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