Winning by losing on cap and trade
By W. James Antle III
Late last month, the House of Representatives narrowly passed the Waxman-Markey bill, which takes the controversial "cap and trade" approach to reducing carbon emissions. Although it faces an uncertain future in the Senate, the legislation's supporters see it as the first step toward addressing climate change.
Republicans -- who doubt Waxman-Markey's efficacy and, eight "cap and traitors" notwithstanding, overwhelmingly voted against the bill -- see it as their first real political opportunity since Barack Obama became president.
That's because Waxman-Markey (also known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act) raises the price of commonly used hydrocarbon energy sources, such as oil and coal. Those higher prices will be borne by consumers. It effectively imposes a tax on energy use.
If it becomes law, Waxman-Markey would therefore represent the first broad-based tax increase of the Obama administration. The president's budget blueprints anticipate a return to the top marginal income tax rate that prevailed under Bill Clinton, but that can easily be portrayed as taxing rich people who did not pay their "fair share" under George W. Bush.
President Obama has also signed into law a higher federal cigarette tax. Unlike the income-tax hike, this tax increase is regressive. But it also targets an unpopular minority with an unhealthy habit. It is hard to imagine the Democratic majority falling to a cigarette tax revolt.
By contrast, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that cap and trade will cost $175 per household -- and the CBO estimate is one of the lower projections. The conservative Heritage Foundation calculates that a typical family of four will see its energy costs go up $436 immediately when the provisions take effect in 2012, rising to an average of $829 a year between 2012 and 2035. Factor in the increased production costs that will also be passed on to consumers and Waxman-Markey will cost a family of four an average of $2,979 annually over the same time period.
That's why Republicans have been quick to use the word "tax" as much as humanly possible in describing the bill. "Cap and tax" is the ubiquitous substitute for "cap and trade." Other members of the GOP congressional leadership call Waxman-Markey "the national energy tax."
Last week, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out a fundraiser mailing that said the following: "Cap-and-trade is nothing more than a tax which starts accruing the moment you flip on your light switch. This 'light switch tax' will raise energy costs by hundreds of dollars for the average family and between 1.8 and 7 million American jobs could be lost."
Who wants to campaign in 2010 or 2012 as a defender of the light switch tax?
Republicans aren't alone in seeing the political danger of voting for cap and trade. No fewer than 44 Democrats voted against Waxman-Markey, despite concessions for the centrist Blue Dog Coalition. The more vulnerable a Democratic congressman to a Republican challenge next year, the more likely they were to oppose the bill.
According to political analyst Ronald Brownstein of National Journal, 59 percent of Democrats representing districts carried by John McCain voted against cap and trade. Only 7 percent of Democrats representing districts won by Obama did the same. Walter Minnick of Idaho, Charlie Melancon of Louisiana, Jim Marshall of Georgia, Travis Childers of Mississippi -- with some exceptions, the lists of Democrats voting "no" reads like a who's who of Democrats representing conservative districts.
While enough Democrats were afraid to support Waxman-Markey to jeopardize its passage, Republicans still have plenty of opportunities. There are 49 Democrats in the House who hold seats in districts McCain carried. Twenty of them voted for the light switch tax. '
Expect this 20 to be targeted in 2010. And they will be targeted if the House must vote on this issue again after Senate action. Republicans will make this as difficult a vote as the 1993 Clinton tax increase was for Democrats in conservative-leaning districts.
Grassroots conservatives are currently most exercised by the eight Republicans who voted to pass cap and trade. Without them, the bill might not have passed. (Or, more likely, it would have had to pass with more politically risky votes by jittery, vulnerable Democrats.) Unless the Club for Growth decides to make a point, little is likely to happen to these outliers. One, John McHugh of New York, is about to leave Congress to take a job in the Obama administration. Two, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Michael Castle of Delaware, are being actively recruited to run for the Senate.
The Republicans' real opportunities lie not in primarying Republican Mary Bono Mack of California but in defeating Democrat Heath Shuler of North Carolina and others like him. Republicans are making a bet: the American people find liberalism's promises attractive until the bills begin to come due. If the Democrats win on cap and trade, they're voting for a long-term loser.
W. James Antle III (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of The American Spectator.
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