Environmentalists have their eyes on the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid has given several committees a September 28 deadline to mark up climate change legislation. The legislation is expected to include a "cap-and-trade" program, in which companies would need to have allowances to emit greenhouse gases, and the amount of allowances would be capped at a level that would decline for several years.
The House of Representatives passed its version (H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009) in June. It's clear that America needs to act to reduce the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. But it's equally clear that the Senate could do better than the House did in addressing this problem.
President Obama proposed in his first budget that Congress create a cap-and-trade system in which all of the emissions allowances are auctioned off to companies rather than given away for free. The overall amount of allowances would be capped and reduced each year. The revenue raised could be largely used, the President reasoned, for a refundable tax credit that would offset the impact of the resulting higher energy costs for low- and middle-income families.
The House cap-and-trade bill only auctions off 15 percent of the allowances, and the revenue raised would help offset the costs for the poorest fifth of families. So 85 percent of the allowances would not be auctioned off, but neither would they be doled out for free to corporations (not all of them anyway). There would be strings attached for some. For example, local utility companies would initially get almost half of the allowances, but in return they would be required to pass savings onto consumers. Unfortunately, there are many reasons why this is an inefficient way to protect consumers.
The Senate might repeat the House's mistakes. One of the Senate committees with partial jurisdiction over the legislation will be the Finance Committee, whose chairman (Max Baucus of Montana) recently told Congressional Quarterly that the Senate would probably not allocate the emissions allowances all that differently than the House bill does.
The increased costs that middle-income families would see if the House bill becomes law are not gigantic ($235 a year according to the Congressional Budget Office). But Congress needs to decide whether the increased prices paid for energy should go largely towards corporate profits (which seems to be the likely result of the House-passed bill) or be redirected back to consumers.
The Senate could accomplish the latter by auctioning off more than 15 percent of the allowances and using the revenue to offset the increased energy costs more effectively for both low- and middle-income families. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that refundable tax credits, combined with more use of EBT cards, would be an effective way to deliver the necessary energy refund to the vast majority of low- and middle-income families.
The Senate might not just repeat the House's mistakes. They might even add a few of their own. Baucus told the Daily Tax Report that “Congress could use the money from auctioning allowances to cut taxes: by cutting marginal rates, by cutting capital gains rates, by cutting payroll taxes. Or we could do all of the above.”
To take just one of these ridiculous ideas, the preferential rates that already exist for capital gains and dividends already cost us around $100 billion a year and the vast majority of the benefits go to the richest one percent of taxpayers. Let's hope Senator Baucus sees that relief for consumers is more important than showering more special breaks on wealthy investors.