A Bipartisan Caucus Aims to Propel Congress Forward on Climate Change
But will that translate into meaningful legislation?
In January 2017, on his first day in office, Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania, joined the Climate Solutions Caucus. “I signed up and I’ve been an active member ever since,” he said in a recent phone interview. Why did he join? He wanted, he said, to be part of a scenario in which the environment is not politicized.
In the current political climate, the idea that the environment, and more specifically climate change, could ever be a nonpartisan issue seems almost outlandish. But that’s the goal of the Climate Solutions Caucus, which was founded in February 2016 by two U.S. representatives from Florida—Republican Carlos Curbelo and Democrat Ted Deutch. Both represent coastal districts that are already experiencing the effects of sea level rise, and both were convinced that finding common ground was possible.
The concept for the caucus originated with Jay Butera, a legislative liaison with the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), which builds political support for bipartisan solutions to climate change. “I had this idea that if we could just get the two parties to talk to each other about this issue, the irrational gridlock would begin to fade away,” Butera said. “I was going around Capitol Hill explaining what I was trying to accomplish, and people in both parties would laugh and say, ‘Well, that’s never going to happen. What’s your plan B?”
But in fact, it has happened, and two years in, the caucus has grown to 70 members—half Republicans and half Democrats. Its purpose, according to the CCL website, is to “explore policy options that address the impacts, causes, and challenges of our changing climate.” Butera and other proponents say the caucus is a safe place for Republicans to start talking about climate change and exploring solutions. Steve Valk, CCL’s communication director, calls it “the first step up the ladder of leadership for Republicans on the issue.”
The caucus focuses heavily on education. It has hosted talks by former treasury secretary Hank Paulson, who is a part of the Climate Leadership Council, and by Whitney MacMillan, the chairman emeritus of Cargill, who discussed the impacts of climate change on food supply. Members have heard from energy company executives who want action on climate change and from tourism groups worried about sea level rise. In September, the group met with athletes from Protect Our Winters. Staff trips have been organized to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado and Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia.
Any representative is welcome to join regardless of their views on climate change, as long as a member of the opposite party joins with them. Last March, heads turned when Daryl Issa joined the caucus; he’s a congressional Republican from Southern California who, as head of the House Commitee on Oversight and Government Reform, targeted climate scientist Michael Mann. In 2013, the League of Conservation Voters and Organizing for America gave him their tongue-in-cheek Climate Change Denier award. In November, Matt Gaetz, who as a freshman representative introduced legislation to abolish the EPA, also signed on.
This open-arms approach has aggravated some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, who charge that Republicans like Issa and Gaetz are joining the caucus in an attempt to greenwash their resumes and appeal to moderate voters. The caucus, critics point out, has yet to advance any substantial legislation that deals with climate change.
“I have a love/hate relationship with the Climate Solutions Caucus,” Melinda Pierce, the Sierra Club’s legislative director, said. “I am delighted that there are Republicans who are willing to come out of the closet on climate change. But I don't want to celebrate talk. I want to celebrate action.”
Indeed, when it comes to pro-environmental votes, even the Republican co-chair of the caucus, Representative Curbelo, falls short. The League of Conservation Voters gives him a career voting score of just 38 percent. He has supported the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, and slashing renewable energy standards. Republicans in swing districts are especially interested in the caucus now, Pierce said, as they nervously eye the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. “It’s really hard to reconcile their votes to support fossil fuel infrastructure projects with their professed stance on tackling climate change.”
Fair enough. But it’s important to step back and put congressional caucuses as a whole in perspective. There are literally hundreds of caucuses in Congress, and besides a few high-profile ones, like the Congressional Black Caucus and the Freedom Caucus, most are relatively obscure (ever heard of the Chicken Caucus?). Few voters know which ones their representatives belong to. According to a 2014 article in the Atlantic that cited congressional research, members of the House belong to 34 caucuses on average.
So claiming that House Republicans join the Climate Solutions Caucus just to convince moderate voters that they are environmentally minded might be overstating the case, or at least oversimplifying it. “No one was ever voted in or out of office based on which caucus she or he belonged to,” Butera said.
Furthermore, Butera and Valk both point out that if Republicans are joining the caucus out of political insecurity, that’s a good thing. It’s a sign that they are responding to their constituents, whose views on climate are shifting. “That’s called democracy,” Butera said.
When asked what he thought about the greenwashing charge leveled at caucus Republicans, the Democratic co-chair Representative Deutch said, “Look, it shouldn’t be a big deal in the U.S. Congress for members of both parties to sit down and talk about really difficult and pressing issues. But that, as we all know, has become exceedingly difficult. So the fact that 35 Republicans and 35 Democrats are willing to engage in a conversation about ways to address climate change is an important first step and we should acknowledge that.”
Whether because of political insecurity or because the caucus is fostering a deeper understanding of climate change and its impacts—or possibly both—some Republicans on the caucus are inching closer to the center on the environment. Representative Curbelo is a case in point. His LCV score for pro-environmental votes for 2016 alone rose to 56 percent.
Ultimately, Valk and Butera see bipartisan legislation as the only way forward on climate change, and that can only be accomplished if the issue is depoliticized. Both point to the 2009 cap-and-trade bill, which failed even with a Democratic president in the White House and Democrats in control of the House and the Senate. Likewise, they see the recent Republican health-care debacle as highlighting the perils of either party trying to go it alone on major legislation. “For something to get passed, and to stand up over time, you need support from both sides,” Valk said. “We see this as a long game.”
But will all of this careful consensus building really translate into substantive legislation to confront climate change? That’s the million-dollar question.
To date, the caucus has had some modest achievements. The most notable occurred last summer, when the House Armed Services Committee was working on the National Defense Authorization Act. In July, Representative Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican, added an amendment that would have blocked a Department of Defense study about the impacts of climate change on national security. The caucus rallied its members to oppose it, and the House voted to defeat it.
Caucus members also worked to build support for a bill introduced last February by two caucus members that extended tax credits for renewable energy technologies like fuel cells, microturbines, and thermal energy. Provisions of that bill were included in the budget bill passed on February 9.
Other successes have been more symbolic. Last spring, Representative Curbelo led an effort among caucus Republicans to block the repeal of a rule to curb emissions of methane. In the end, the House voted in favor of the repeal, though it was rejected by the Senate. At the end of the year, during the tax bill debate, 12 congressional Republicans, nine of whom were caucus members, sent a letter urging that a provision to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be removed from the tax bill. The provision remained in the final version.
Overall, the caucus has yet to materialize as a counterweight to a White House intent on withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, dismantling the Clean Power Plan, shrinking federal protections for public lands, and generally treating the country like an all-you-can-eat buffet for the fossil fuel industry.
But the Climate Solutions Caucus is growing. At the end of January, Michigan representative Fred Upton, the former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, announced plans to join. Last week, Representatives Amata Radewagen and Judy Chu signed on. With these additions, the 35-member-strong Republican side of the caucus could conceivably transform into a voting block that rivals the powerful Freedom Caucus.
In a recent speech on the House floor, Representative Curbelo described three stages for the caucus: to get Republicans and Democrats to “have a conversation about climate change based on the facts and evidence"; to try to defeat anti-climate-change legislation; and lastly, to “become a true idea factory where we proffer good policy solutions for the environment, for rising sea levels, for climate-change-related challenges.”
One area in which Representative Deutch expects the caucus to flex some political muscle in the near future is the upcoming infrastructure debate. “You can’t simply rebuild everything the way that it was constructed when sea level rise is happening, not when the severity of these storms is impacting structures,” he said. “Climate resilience has to be part of the infrastructure discussion.” Asked whether this message is resonating with Republicans on the caucus, he replied, “Absolutely.”
So what, ultimately, to make of the Climate Solutions Caucus?
“Voters are really smart,” Deutch said. “Saying ‘I joined an organization; therefore, I am committed to something’ is not going to be enough to convince them of anyone’s commitment to fight climate change.” And the environmental community, he argues, is going to rightfully do what it has always done: hold members of Congress accountable for how they vote. In other words, if Republicans and Democrats in Congress are finally talking to each other about climate change, then the caucus is doing its job. It’s up to the rest of us to do ours.