To the surprise of many, including myself, over the weekend the Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which is primarily climate policy — the biggest such bill in American history. As Zachary D. Carter writes at The American Prospect, it’s got a big pot of money for zero-carbon energy research, tax credits for wind, solar, heat pumps, electric vehicles, and a lot more. It’s great news.
All that said, the Senate has still not acquitted itself well here. The act's climate spending is somewhat smaller than the climate package that previously passed the House, and it contains substantial fossil fuel benefits as a sop to swing vote Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who also cut out virtually all of Biden’s proposed welfare state expansions. (The act is roughly 90% smaller than the initial Build Back Better.)
More importantly, twice before in the last 30 years the Senate has garroted a president’s climate policy. The climate today is in parlous shape in large part because the Senate makes it almost impossible to govern this country.
Back in 2010, President Barack Obama’s cap and trade plan stalled out in the Senate even though Democrats had 59 votes because moderate Democrats like John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia and Evan Bayh of Indiana were leery of the proposal, and a much larger group refused to get rid of the filibuster. Similarly, moderate senators like David L. Boren, D-Okla., killed President Bill Clinton’s carbon tax plan in 1993. Now, those plans were considerably less aggressive than the Inflation Reduction Act, but because they would have cut down greenhouse gas emissions before the problem became a severe emergency, the betrayal was, if anything, even worse.
The American climate has developed all manner of emergencies while the Senate was swatting down green policies. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, is currently at its lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s. Lake Powell, upstream of Mead on the Colorado River, is nearly as empty, as are most of the other reservoirs in the river basin. It’s all part of an accelerating chronic water shortage in the Southwest that threatens tens of millions of people. It also imperils some of our most important agriculture, like in California, which grows two-thirds of America's fruits and nuts, and one-third of its vegetables. Meanwhile, yet another heat wave has been straining the electrical grid in Texas, melting runways in Chicago, ruining crops in Great Plains states, and killing people across the country.
Other places are feeling the effects of climate change even more sharply. But it’s important to emphasize that the United States is not even remotely immune from the effects of climate change. America’s wealth will be of little help if it isn’t spent on needed programs before disaster strikes. Thanks to the Senate’s 30 years of dithering, we are now forced into a pell-mell rush to build coast defenses, ruggedize our electric grid, drought-proof our cities and farms, all while simultaneously conducting a crash investment in zero-carbon energy.
This history should come as little surprise. In the broad sweep of American history, the Senate’s only reliable behavior is obstruction — particularly of civil rights or anti-lynching bills. It doesn’t serve as a check on the power of the House or the president or the court system as James Madison theorized it would. On the contrary, because the Senate has strangled the ability of Congress to do anything outside of a crisis, power has flowed to the president and the courts. One way the majority right-wing Supreme Court has claimed power for itself, for instance, is by striking down legislation based on tendentious readings of legislative text, knowing that Congress will be helpless to clarify its intentions. Something similar is true of the rise of executive orders: When problems arise and Congress is deadlocked, the president is tempted to push the boundaries of his previous authorities rather than asking for new ones.
The Senate’s behavior, in turn, is because of its eye-popping malapportionment and an excess of depopulated, rural, extremely white states. Wyoming, for instance, gets fully 68 times as much representation as California, while North Dakota has 25 times that of New York. As a result, the median Senate seat is now biased about 7 points toward the GOP. Meanwhile, Democrats have to work themselves to the bone to get a bare Senate majority, only for their swing vote to come from a guy residing in a heavily conservative state with a literal personal coal fortune.
It’s hard to imagine the Senate being disempowered . The Constitution stipulates that states can’t be deprived of “equal suffrage” without their consent. But that doesn’t prohibit, for example, a constitutional amendment cutting the Senate out of the legislative process entirely, or adopting a new constitution entirely as is happening in Chile.
The Constitution itself had no legal basis when it was adopted; it was drafted by fiat when the Articles of Confederation proved totally unworkable and ratified in the manner its authors saw fit. Today, the Senate’s climate obstruction is every bit as bad as the worst dysfunction under the articles. We’d be enormously better off with a unicameral legislature.