(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are
By John Kemp
LONDON, Sept 24 The Energy Savings and
Industrial Competitiveness Act (S 1392) is the sort of dull but
worthy law that should easily pass the U.S. Senate, even in an
era of extreme partisan polarisation.
Running to 48 pages, the bill, co-authored by Democrat
Jeanne Shaheen from New Hampshire and Republican Rob Portman
from Ohio, would encourage more energy efficiency by
strengthening voluntary building codes, helping train workers,
and directing the Energy Department to work closely with the
private sector on energy efficient manufacturing.
Among other initiatives, it would also set up a SupplySTAR
programme to recognise and encourage good practices in the
supply chain, modelled on the highly successful EnergySTAR
programme for energy-efficient appliances like refrigerators in
homes and offices.
These are hardly the sort of policy issues which divide
Democrats and Republicans. In fact, the bill has strong
cross-party support, as well as backing from business groups and
environmentalists. Yet it still risks being derailed, a
potential victim of the climate of partisan warfare in
Washington that makes every issue, no matter how worthy, hostage
to everything else.
The bill's scope is very limited. It avoid contentious
issues like climate change and carbon emissions. It imposes no
new compulsory requirements on the private sector. It has no
impact on the budget deficit. The few items of expenditure it
authorises would be offset by redirecting spending on other
energy conservation programmes.
As a result, the bill has been able to assemble unusually
strong support from across the political spectrum, with backing
from over 250 organisations, ranging from the U.S. Chamber of
Commerce to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the American
Chemistry Council to the Sierra Club.
"S 1392 is built on a consensus principle," the National
Association of Manufacturers and Natural Resources Defense
Council wrote in a rare joint letter, "It is our hope that the
Senate will proceed with full consideration of this bill in a
manner that gives it the best opportunity to move forward."
Shaheen and Portman's bill is backed by Democrat Ron Wyden,
the chairman of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources
Committee, and his opposite number, Lisa Murkoswki, the
committee's highest-ranking Republican. It cleared the committee
by a lopsided 19 votes in favour, versus just three against.
Wyden has described it as the "Platonic ideal" of bipartisan
legislation. Senators from all sides have sought to offer a raft
of small but useful amendments covering everything from a study
of appliances' power use when in stand-by mode to energy
efficiency in schools and geothermal power.
Yet it is a sign of just how paralysed the legislative
process has become that even this modest bill has been stuck on
the Senate floor for five days so far, and counting, as the
Senate bickers about Obamacare and other amendments that even
proponents admit are not germane to the subject.
"What we have here in front us is not legislation that is
controversial in the sense that it is pitting different
philosophies against one another. We are bogged down in our own
inertia and cannot figure out how we get to start," Murkowski
complained in a speech on September 18.
"How we move forward is indicative of whether this is a body
that is going to start working, whether this is going to be a
body that is defined as dysfunctional," or whether "this Senate
could prove to be least productive in our Senate history," she
"If we cannot finish legislation such as an energy
efficiency bill, something that most of us would recognise is a
good approach to our energy issues in this country, what are we
going to be able to do on the very big stuff?" Murkowski
The Senate cannot even proceed to consider and vote on the
amendments, let alone the bill itself, because Louisiana Senator
David Vitter and a small number of other conservative
Republicans are insisting they will only allow the debate to
proceed if they are guaranteed a vote on an unrelated Obamacare
issue before Oct 1.
"My amendment is not related to this bill," Vitter admitted
on September 11, "but I have to bring it up now because it is
very time sensitive." The bill's sponsors, and the Senate
leadership, have refused, so Vitter and his colleagues have
blocked any progress.
The quasi-filibuster has prompted an angry war of words
about whether the Senate should try to compartmentalise its
business, dealing with the small non-contentious stuff on a
standalone basis, or whether everything should be linked to
In the past "you could offer any amendment on any bill
anytime you wanted," Oklahoma's Tom Coburn complained, backing
Vitter. "We have changed that, and now consider it abnormal that
someone wants to address a critical issue in our country on a
bill, and we find that distasteful."
But as the bill lingers on the floor, the original
bipartisan amendments have been joined by much more
controversial ones, including a measure that would declare the
stalled Keystone XL pipeline to be "in the national interest."
Some Senate leaders have started to wonder if the Senate
will be forced to abandon it altogether.
Not counting the failed legislation on cap and trade, which
sank amid divisions in 2010, the Senate has not considered
comprehensive energy legislation since 2007.
In the interim, the United States has experienced an energy
revolution, thanks to shale gas and oil. The political and
energy landscape looks nothing like it did when Congress passed
the Energy Policy Act in 2005 and the Energy Independence and
Security Act in 2007.
Legislators have introduced hundreds of bills dealing with
energy-related topics. There is, as Murkowski, told her fellow
senators, enormous "pent-up demand for real energy legislation."
The Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee has been
one of its best-functioning committees, successfully identifying
areas of consensus and producing limited compromise bills. The
panel has reported out half of all the bills that have been
favourably cleared by a committee ready for action on the Senate
But "if a committee works hard and produces good things and
still doesn't go anywhere - wow. After a while we wonder why we
are working so hard around here," Murkowski complained.
The Energy Saving and Industrial Competitiveness Act has
shown the Senate at its best, and its worst. It is a useful
piece of legislation that might still squeak through. But if the
chamber cannot pass a small bill that almost everyone agrees is
a good idea, the legislative process is truly broken.
If it is to have any chance of handling non-contentious
bills with bipartisan support in an efficient manner, the
chamber must find a way to insulate them from unrelated partisan
warfare, or nothing will ever get done.