Is the Sun Setting on Federal Carbon Tax Legislation? Is John Dingell to Blame?


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2007 has been a big year for public awareness of global warming-- especially in the halls of Congress, where a variety of legislative remedies have been discussed. But, as the San Francisco Chronicle's Zachary Coile reports, a lot more heat than light has been shed on the subject so far this year:
The new Democratic Congress began this year with a burst of activity on global warming, holding more than 120 hearings on the topic, in which House and Senate leaders pledged that climate legislation was coming soon.
But the feverish push to enact a mandatory system to limit greenhouse gases now has become a slog. Lawmakers are finding the legislation difficult to write. Congress has yet to coalesce around any one plan. Many fear the rising partisan fervor of the presidential race will doom any major climate change bill that isn't passed before next summer.
Aside from the impending presidential election, Coile sees a number of other factors that could spell doom for any new energy policies, including:
A likely presidential veto (President Bush opposes a mandatory cap on emissions); the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate; and the House, where Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who chairs the committee writing the bill, is pushing a carbon tax seen as dead on arrival.
The last item is interesting because at first glance, Dingell's role in the debate appears to have been a constructive one. He's proposed legislation that would encourage construction of smaller, more energy-efficient homes by disallowing the mortgage interest deduction for so-called "McMansions" , and has been signaling throughout the summer that he'll introduce an actual carbon tax proposal this fall. How can such a visionary approach to environmental tax reform hurt the chances of energy reform?

The answer, according to observers such as David Leonhardt and Eleanor Clift, is that Dingell doesn't really believe in these proposals at all. To hear these folks tell it, the Michigan lawmaker formerly known as "Tailpipe John" for his allegiance to the auto industry's interests has definitely not gotten religion on this topic, and in fact is deliberately proposing energy tax ideas that will sink like a stone to convince his fellow lawmakers that energy tax legislation is doomed to failure. Leonhardt notes that the "details of his plan -- like using the tax revenue to shore up Social Security, rather than to cut other taxes -- do not seem aimed at building political support for it," and Clift isn't buying it either:
If you watch what he does and not what he says, there's reason to be skeptical about the sincerity of his conversion. Dingell made sure a provision passed by the Senate in June to increase the automobile fuel-efficiency standard to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 (up from 27.5) was not included in the energy bill passed by the House in August.
Until the Senator releases a detailed plan, it will be hard to know how serious he is about it. But if his current outreach strategy is any indication, it doesn't look good: the Detroit Free Press reports that tomorrow, Dingell plans to seek "online input" from the Internet community on his proposal. Hope that works out for him...
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