President Donald Trump’s ascent to the Oval Office should have hit pause on any legislative effort to curb climate-altering emissions.
Yet chatter about one proposal continunes – a tax on carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. In February, a group of Republicans – led by James Baker, who served in both Ronald Reagan’s and George H.W. Bush’s Cabinets – pitched a version of that emissions-reduction measure to Trump officials.
No new White House policy came out of that meeting. But now a pair of Democratic senators are trying again, reaching across the aisle in their own branch of government to sell a carbon tax as a way to smooth the bumpy road to tax reform.
To make their first pitch to Republicans, the two sponsors of the legislation, Sheldon Whitehouse, R.I., and Brian Schatz, Hawaii, entered the lion’s den.
“I know how crazy this sounds,” Schatz told a crowd at the American Enterprise Institute, one of the pillars of conservative thought in Washington. “But I want you to know that what is more politically palatable than taxing your groceries to reduce the top corporate income tax rate is taxing carbon pollution.”
The senators insisted there are Republican lawmakers out there who would support the legislation – between six and 10, Whitehouse said – even if none of them wished to be the first to do so aloud.
“It has to do with the fossil-fuel industry,” Whitehouse said in an interview after the event. Lobbying groups representing U.S. corporations, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Petroleum Institute, Whitehouse contended, are content with no action being taken on climate change while company executives themselves can continue offering rhetoric.
“That prevents you from being shunned at Davos cocktail parties,” Whitehouse said, adding to clarify “that is what I’ve observed.”
The bill is a conventional carbon tax proposal, though flexed to fit the whims of Trump’s Washington.
A $49-per-metric-ton fee would be placed on carbon emissions, with the estimated $2.1 trillion raised in the first decade going to fund a top GOP wish list item: A reduction of the top marginal corporate income-tax rate, from 35 percent to 29 percent. Revenue raised would also address other Trump priorities such as paying for veterans’ benefits and granting states money to help workers find new jobs after leaving declining industries – such as coal.
“With a small fraction of the revenue from a carbon fee,” Whitehouse said in his speech, “we can assure every single coal miner a lifetime of comfort and financial stability.”
But Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEE) and head of Trump’s transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency, called the proposal dead on arrival.
“I’d like to see the anti-oligarchic leftist Democrats like Sen. Whitehouse defend taking money out of the pockets of poor people and putting it in the hands of people who own shares in major U.S. corporations,” Ebell said on the panel after Whitehouse spoke.
“The reason that’s in there,” Ebell said of the corporate tax break, “is that they want to lure some Republicans to front this effort, and that is not going to work because conservatives are the stupid party but not that stupid.”
On the surface, Republican opposition to efforts to reduce the emissions of climate-warming gases – or even to admitting climate change exists – is slowly chipping away, even under Trump. While failing to find GOP co-sponsors for this bill, Whitehouse along with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., were able to get two Republicans, Shelley Moore Capito, W.Va., and John Barrasso, Wyo., to sign onto a carbon-capture bill earlier this month.
And on the other side of the Capitol, a bipartisan caucus committed to acknowledging and addressing climate change is up to 50 House members from only 18 in January.
“There are quite a number of other Republicans in the wings, waiting to do this,” former vice president Al Gore stated in a March interview. “I know that for a fact.”
But Republicans deeply skeptical of climate science, such as Sen. James Inhofe, Okla., suggest that silent majority within the GOP – that doesn’t talk publicly much about climate change – swings his way.
For example, 22 GOP senators sent a letter to Trump in May asking him to pull out of the Paris climate accord. “We could have gotten a lot more signatures,” Inhofe, who helped organize the letter, said in an interview at the time. “There’s no question about that.”
As for the temperature in the AEI auditorium on Wednesday, where representatives from disparate groups such as Ebell’s CEE and the Environmental Defense Fund gathered: One of the few lines to draw applause from the eclectic audience was a call to action for conservatives.
“There are so many potential benefits and such a real threat,” Adele Morris of the Brookings Institution said, “that it boggles the mind why people who are conservative are still debating whether there’s a case to be made for action or not.”