The Centerpiece of the Build Back Better Climate Plan Has Been Stripped Out

Months into the Democrats’ messy, public internal debates on President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better spending plans — and despite a massive effort by Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speak Nancy Pelosi to seal the deal this week — it is still far from clear whether the factions of the party will work out a way to pass the reconciliation bill, which has already been chiseled down beyond recognition.

In an effort to prevent the bill from being gutted even further, the Congressional Progressive Caucus once again held the line this week, insisting that Speaker Pelosi delay a vote on the separate $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Build Back Better budget reconciliation package is ready to move forward in tandem with the larger infrastructure bill. In response to the show of collective power from the group of progressive lawmakers, Pelosi announced late Thursday that she was delaying the vote on the larger bipartisan bill.

But even if the Build Back Better Act does pass, due to the huge scalebacks that conservative Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have demanded, what once had the potential to be transformative in the way that signature New Deal and Great Society programs were is now in part reduced to being another public display of the dysfunction of Washington, D.C., in the face of overwhelming challenges, and in the churn of a tsunami of lobbying efforts against the legislation by business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.

Nevertheless, if it does pass, the bill could still meaningfully impact many people’s lives by extending the federal payments to families with children, increasing Pell Grant spending, and allowing for large expansions in the country’s stock of affordable housing. Perhaps the most important aspect of the legislation is that it will cement in place the notion that tackling climate change is a priority federally.

Even the stripped-down version of the bill, which looks likely to come in at about $1.75 trillion in new spending, as opposed to the $3.5 trillion originally envisaged, currently promises to contain upward of $500 billion to fund climate change-related investments, most of it devoted to tax incentives to encourage companies to move toward cleaner energy products. That’s a lot of money, and if used effectively, it has the potential to alter the country’s relationship to fossil fuels and to carbon emissions over the next decade.

But what could have been a moment in which the full force of the federal government was laser-focused on transforming the economy to rapidly and permanently move away from fossil fuels, and on mitigating the effects of global warming, has instead degenerated into a food fight. Yes, there may still be a lot of money unleashed to tackle climate change, but it will be done with ill will, begrudgingly and denuded of vital provisions designed to turbo-charge the restructuring of the economy.

Senator Manchin’s role in all of this has been particularly unsavory, a somewhat compelling masterclass of one man’s shameless exercise of raw, king-making power.

The senator from West Virginia, one of the country’s leading producers of both coal and natural gas, has gone after provisions in the legislation that penalize fossil fuel producers and try to force, at speed, a transition to cleaner energy. He has used his position both as a key swing vote and as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to push a “my-way-or-the-highway” approach to the legislation.

Manchin opposes penalties for utilities companies that don’t increase the share of low-carbon power that they generate by 4 percentage points each year from 2023 through 2030.

As a result, the $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program, which at one point was the centerpiece of the climate proposals, and which both incentivizes the move to clean energy and, more importantly, penalizes those companies that don’t make the move, was stripped from the reconciliation bill before the Senate. What is left are hundreds of billions of dollars of tax credits to companies that move toward renewable energy production and usage — but that will, according to estimates, only get the country about halfway to where it needs to be if it is to meet the goals set in the upcoming COP26 meeting in Scotland.

Manchin also has set himself against the idea of a fee charged to companies that emit methane, a huge contributor to global warming, into the atmosphere. As a result, it’s looking increasingly likely, as Democrats scramble to reach a deal — any deal, at any cost, simply so they can say to voters that they got something done — that the methane fee will, in coming days, end up on the cutting room floor.

Meanwhile, the idea of a carbon border adjustment tax — which progressives have long been pushing as a way to even the playing field between companies that produce goods overseas in lax regulatory environments and U.S.-based companies, which are subjected to more rigorous environmental regulations — hasn’t picked up enough traction. The White House, which feared that taxing products based on the amount of carbon it took to produce them would contribute to higher consumer prices in an already inflationary context, was never enthusiastic about the tax.

The Biden administration made it clear during the summer that it wouldn’t push for the measure. Now, it is also becoming clear that there isn’t enough support in the Democratic caucus in the Senate to include such a plan in the final reconciliation bill. Thus, while the European Union is on the verge of moving ahead with this method of reining in carbon emissions, the U.S. remains on the sidelines.

There is overwhelming pressure on the Democrats to pass a reconciliation bill in the next week so that Biden can sign it before he addresses the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. After all, the all-too-obvious electoral consequences to the Democrats of this key legislation going down in flames are too ghastly even for a mediocre Senate leader such as Schumer to stomach.

But at the same time, it’s not at all clear that the legislation that does ultimately pass will be transformative enough to rescue the Democrats from their self-inflicted malaise, or even start to meet the massive needs of the moment. The climate change compromises are particularly dispiriting — better than nothing but far less ambitious than what is needed to meet the escalating climate crisis that is now so clearly and vividly upon us.