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(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own)
By John Kemp
LONDON, Sept 24 (Reuters) - 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 added.
"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 wondered aloud.
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 everything else.
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 floor.
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.