14 june 2013

[4C note: The Sanders/Boxer carbon tax bill was presented earlier this year - see our news report of 16 February. The text of the proposed Climate Protection Act can be found here].

Conservatives part ways on carbon tax idea

Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter Friday, June 14, 2013

Four conservative think tanks offered a preview of coming attractions last night when they held an organized battle over how the right should approach climate change going forward.

The debate in Washington, D.C., hosted by the R Street Institute was ostensibly not about climate change but about the narrower question of whether conservatives could back a carbon tax under certain circumstances. Andrew Moylan, a senior fellow with R Street and one of the evening's four debaters, asked participants to move global warming to the back burner and instead consider whether a carbon tax might help conservatives achieve other long-sought policy changes, including corporate and individual tax cuts and regulatory reform.

But the larger question being hashed out in a packed Dupont Circle conference room was whether conservatives should begin to formulate their own climate change policies or whether they should stick to the path pursued by most Republicans in recent years -- that is, casting doubt on the science of man-made warming while attempting to prevent the Obama administration from regulating carbon dioxide using authorities already at its disposal.

Moylan and former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who argued in favor of a revenue-neutral carbon tax, said conservatives weakened their hand by ceding the issue to liberals. By boycotting all discussion of climate policy, they said, conservatives are actually increasing the likelihood that when the issue gains political traction at some future date, America will reach for a suite of ready-made policies developed by the left to cope with it.

But that can be prevented, they said, if the right starts to weigh in.

"Our team is hoping to change the conversation tonight," said Inglis, who has been promoting the carbon tax idea as head of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University. "To change it from this conversation that was started by liberals, where the assumption is that if we act on energy and climate that what necessarily follows is that we're going to grow the government, we're going to increase the size and scope of the nanny state, we're going to lose individual freedoms and liberties, and we're going to be wholly unaccountable and irresponsible to the way conservatives see government."

Inglis and Moylan -- or "Team Yes," as moderator and libertarian commentator Ronald Bailey called them -- said conservatives would find themselves in a strong negotiating position if they embraced a carbon tax. They could win not only tax reductions elsewhere, but rollbacks to subsidies for wind and solar energy and pre-emption of U.S. EPA carbon dioxide rules for power plants, oil refineries and other sources that are set to take effect without new congressional action.

But "Team No" -- Heritage Foundation research fellow David Kreutzer and Heartland Institute senior fellow James Taylor -- said this kind of deal was a fantasy.

Taylor said his opponents were "smoking pixie dust" if they thought liberals would live up to any promises to permanently cut other taxes in favor of a new levy on carbon.

He raised the specter of President George H.W. Bush's "read my lips" pledge and President Reagan's 1986 amnesty for illegal immigrants -- both bitter disappointments for conservatives.

Money raised through a carbon tax, he said, would be raided for other purposes -- like shoring up a faltering Social Security system -- and would not go to offset other tax cuts.

Kreutzer agreed. "It's irresponsible to propose policies that you know will be abused before they're enacted," he said. "And that's what we've seen over and over. Let's cut spending first."

"Team No" also rejected the idea that liberals would willingly let go of U.S. EPA's greenhouse gas authorities to win adoption of a carbon tax.

But Moylan said the left certainly wouldn't do so without replacing those powers with other policies it deemed likely to draw down emissions. And the last few years have shown that the right cannot easily rein in EPA on its own. House and Senate Republicans spent considerable time in the last Congress searching for ways to strip EPA of its Clean Air Act authorities through Congressional Review Act resolutions, stand-alone legislation and riders to appropriations bills, he noted. Nothing stuck.

A carbon tax might bring the left to the negotiating table, Moylan said, and head off "ham-handed" regulations that would cost the economy far more in the long run than the proposed tax swap.

"The difference is, we actually have a plan we're proposing," he told the moderator. "I haven't heard, other than wishing they would go away, what their plan would be."

Taylor and Kreutzer said negotiations of this kind would amount to "capitulation."

Taylor said he would not consider replacing hated EPA rules with another policy that ran counter to conservative values. "I'm not going to support it because it's not right," he said. "I don't support things that aren't right."

While the purpose of the debate was not to discuss climate science, it waded into those troubled waters a few times.

Taylor said global warming would actually benefit human populations.

"So the mere notion that the climate is changing -- which, by the way, it always has -- does not mean that (a) we're facing a crisis, or (b) that we have to do anything about it," he said.

But Inglis said the risk of catastrophic warming, no matter how slim, justified some efforts to contain it.

Promoting early action

There is some evidence that Inglis and Moylan's view might be gaining traction among conservatives.

R Street estimated that 75 percent of those who registered for the debate were from conservative and libertarian organizations, and at the end of the event, about that percentage stood to indicate their support for a carbon tax swap.

And Moylan said after the event that Republican offices he had visited in the past few months on Capitol Hill also seemed receptive to the idea, especially when he explained the opportunities he saw for EPA preemption.

Republicans are sometimes skeptical that such a deal could be reached, he said. But again, he said, EPA rules are set to phase in now, unless Congress acts.

“I know how realistic it is to expect it to disappear on its own,” he said. “And I know what the result of conservatives not engaging in decades-long debates looks like -- we’ve seen it, and I don’t think it’s a very good result for us.”

Moylan said he was referring to battles like the one over health care, which culminated in the enactment of Obamacare in the 111th Congress. Conservatives could have had a better chance of shaping that debate, he said, if they weighed in earlier.

Moylan said that Republicans might be spurred to action when the Obama administration releases a final greenhouse gas emissions rule for new power plants in the coming months.

“That might be a point at which we might start to have more of those conversations,” he said.

Moylan’s comments echo ones made earlier this week by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) at an event hosted by Whitehouse at the Capitol. The two chairmen of the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change said that while their main focus is finding ways the administration can maximize its effect on carbon emissions without Congress, they also hoped those efforts will convince lawmakers to act.

“If the president moves with all the powers that he has, I believe that some of these industries are going to come back to Congress and say, 'We would rather have you legislate,’” said Waxman.

At the same event, White House climate and energy adviser Heather Zichal said the president is preparing to unveil some new proposals in the near term that get at climate change.

And Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told reporters yesterday that she planned to hold a hearing in July that would touch on a carbon tax bill she co-sponsored with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The measure would refund some revenue to consumers, but would spend 40 percent of its proceeds on energy efficiency, renewable energy and deficit reduction.

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