Weekly Mulch: Climate Change On Obama’s Back Burner

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

In his first State of the Union address, President Barack Obama touched on climate issues only briefly. He called on the Senate to pass a climate bill, but did not give Congress a deadline or promise to veto weak legislation. Nor did he mention the Copenhagen climate conference, where international negotiators struggled to produce an agreement on limiting global carbon emissions.

The Obama administration’s attitude towards climate change still represents a remarkable shift from the Bush years, when global warming was treated as little more than a fairy tale. But in the past year, Congressional squabbling has stalled climate legislation, and international negotiators nearly gridlocked in talks over carbon admissions at the multinational Copenhagen conference. Without strong leadership from the president, work to prevent this looming environmental crisis will stall.

Obama did address global warming skeptics, saying that they should support investment in clean energy, “because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.”

“And America must be that nation,” Obama said.

No push for climate bill

Despite his combative language,  the president did not challenge Congress to push for real solutions to ballooning carbon emissions and energy consumption. As Forrest Wilder of The Texas Observer notes, Obama “uttered the phrase ‘climate change’ precisely once.”

The Senate has already wait-listed the climate bill: Health care came first. With health care reform now in line behind work on jobs and bank regulation, climate legislation has little chance of passing the Senate in the coming months, let alone making it to the president’s desk.

If Congress lets this work wait until after the midterm elections, the United States will show up at international negotiations in December 2010 as a leader in carbon emissions yet again, but with little in hand to show a way forward.

Clean energy, not renewable energy

When the president did bring up climate issues, he focused on their connection between climate reform and potential job creation. Obama highlighted areas for growth, not in renewable energy fields like wind or solar power, but in nuclear power, natural gas, and clean coal.

Yes, these fuel sources could decrease the country’s carbon emissions. But they are not solutions that will revolutionize energy production. Grist’s David Roberts was floored that the speech omitted renewable energy entirely and kowtowed to a more conservative litany of energy projects. “I suppose it was done to flatter conservative Senators that will have to vote for the bill Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham are working on,” he writes. (The three Senators are working on a version of the climate bill designed to appeal to Republicans.)

“But the SOTU is not a policy negotiation,” Roberts says. “It’s a bully pulpit, a chance to shape rather than respond to existing narratives.”

Roberts argues that progressive supporters would benefit from a stronger message. If activists knew that the White House stands behind a real shift in America’s energy policy, they could use that prompt to drive action on climate change.

What was missing

While touting the virtues of off-shore drilling, Obama overlooked other policies that could broker real change. Although he admonished Congress to pass a climate bill, he did not pressure the legislature on what he’d like that bill to include. He did not mention cap-and-trade, the mechanism the House bill relies on to tamp down emissions and dirty energy use.

President Obama did touch on transportation reforms that could decrease the country’s use of fossil fuels.

“There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains,”  Obama said. He cited a high-speed rail project that broke ground on Tuesday in Tampa, FL, as evidence that America could best the rest of the world in creating new energy-efficient technology.

But one or two high-profile projects won’t be enough to challenge Europe’s network of high-speed trains or China’s investments in solar power. The White House could put the country at the forefront of sustainable technologies, but it’ll take more money than the president has committed. In AlterNet’s ideal state of the union, projects like the railway would merit sustained attention and funding. Funding for the high-speed train came from this year’s stimulus bill, and there’s no guarantee that similar projects will find federal funding in the future.

“Continued support is still needed” for green jobs and clean energy, Alternet’s editorial staff argues. “It’s unclear yet how Obama’s new proposal for a three-year spending freeze will apply to this sector, but a boost is what is needed, not cuts.”

Green jobs

Michelle Chen argues for In These Times that the president is right to subordinate climate issues to economic policy. “The jobs angle is more than sugar-coating,” she says. A recent Pew Research Center poll put climate change at the end of Americans’ long list of cares, and a Brookings Institution study found that they’re no longer willing to pay as much for greener products.

Jobless workers need green in their pockets most of all, and so far politicians’ promises haven’t made up for the slack economy.

“No matter how slick the marketing, confidence in green jobs may wilt even further absent real investments in the beleaguered blue-collar workforce,” Chen writes.

Copenhagen accord losing momentum

The small role that climate change played in the state of the union address only emphasized the downward momentum of the issue since the United Nations conference on global warming in Copenhagen. Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes talked to six leaders in climate change activism, and none of them offered a different strategy than they had last year.

That same stasis is showing up in Europe, as well. Spain, which currently leads the European Union, proposed that the European Union’s negotiating position should remain the same as its position before the Copenhagen conference, according to Inter Press Service.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who’s working on climate change legislation in the Senate, offered advice to climate activists at a clean energy forum in Washington, DC on Wednesday. Mother JonesKate Sheppard reports that Sen. Kerry encouraged his audience to get angrier, louder, and more active, in the mode of the conservative Tea Partiers, who have earned plenty of attention. After his speech, he also recalled the tactics that pushed landmark legislation like the Clean Air Act through Congress.

If climate change is going to play a larger role in the next state of the union, the citizens and groups concerned about this issue need to do something to put it on the agenda. Otherwise, next year, the president may find it just as easy to skim over it again.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Just Who is Obama fighting for?

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Progressives have waited a year for President Barack Obama to roll up his sleeves and fight for serious financial reform. Last week, he finally jumped in the ring, telling weak-kneed Senators to stand up to Wall Street and endorsing a critical ban on risky securities trading.

But while it was good to see Obama start throwing financial punches against the banks, this week he also started throwing them at workers. His recent rhetoric on implementing a spending freeze to reduce the deficit is an economic catastrophe in the making. It indicates that Obama is willing to sacrifice jobs to try and win over Republicans.

A spending freeze would kill jobs

A three-year spending freeze is crazy talk. It’s a right-wing ideologue’s dream that accomplishes nothing and drives millions of people out of work. John McCain campaigned on it during his 2008 presidential run. Our long-term deficit problems are tied to the rising cost of health care. If you want to fix the deficit, fix health care. In the short-term, there is no deficit problem. In fact, the U.S. fiscal position looks very good compared to many European nations.

As Matthew Rothschild notes for The Progressive, a spending freeze would kill any legislation to create jobs. With unemployment at 10%, the economy desperately needs another round of government spending to put people back to work. While the abrupt policy reversal is clearly a political ploy, voters care much more about results than they care about ideology. If Obama actively sabotages the job market to win over conservative deficit-hawks, he’ll be putting his political future in serious jeopardy.

And yet, as Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, Obama’s recent, ramped-up rhetoric against banks still marks a significant change in tone. For most of the year, Obama hasn’t been involved in the financial reform debate at all, letting Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner capitulate to Wall Street and the politicians it owns. Benen highlights the end of Obama’s speech announcing his new banking rules on Jan. 21. Obama says:

So if these folks want a fight, it’s a fight I’m ready to have. And my resolve is only strengthened when I see a return to old practices at some of the very firms fighting reform; and when I see soaring profits and obscene bonuses at some of the very firms claiming that they can’t lend more to small business, they can’t keep credit card rates low, they can’t pay a fee to refund taxpayers for the bailout without passing on the cost to shareholders or customers — that’s the claims they’re making. It’s exactly this kind of irresponsibility that makes clear reform is necessary.

Saving the CFPA

Katrina vanden Huevel lays out Obama’s new financial reform agenda in a column for The Nation, praising a new $117 billion tax on the nation’s largest banks, a plan to cap overall bank size, and a proposal to ban high-risk trading by economically essential commercial banks (more on that later).

But vanden Huevel also rightfully denounces recent indications that Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) may cave to lobbyist pressure and drop the measure to create a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) from the Senate’s financial reform bill.

The death of the CFPA would be a devastating blow to reform. Existing bank regulatory agencies see their primary job as protecting bank profits, meaning that any time the interests of the U.S. consumer conflict with those of bank balance sheets, the regulators have shafted consumers. Current federal banking regulators not only failed to enforce consumer protection laws, they went so far as to join the bank lobby in suing state regulators who were trying to protect households from predatory lending.

Fortunately, Obama isn’t taking Dodd’s bank lobby-induced cowardice sitting down. At Talking Points Memo, Rachel Slajda highlights a New York Times report that claims Obama met with Dodd and told him that the CFPA is a “non-negotiable.”

Commercial banks are important

There’s a lot to like in Obama’s plan to bar commercial banks from participating in risky securities trading. As I emphasize in a piece for AlterNet, commercial banks form the backbone of the U.S. economy. They’re the institutions that accept your paychecks as deposits and keep businesses moving with loans. They also form the core of the economy’s payments system. Without commercial banks, nobody can pay anybody else for goods and services—the economy literally shuts down.

Nevertheless, in the late 1990s, regulators and lawmakers tore down the walls between commercial banking and riskier, complex securities trading, allowing these critical economic utilities to gamble in the capital markets like high-flying hedge funds. That kind of behavior puts the entire economy in jeopardy, and Obama’s proposal to end such behavior is very urgently needed.

But, as vanden Huevel and I both note, Obama’s cap on bank size is a little too timid. Obama indicated that he wants to prevent big banks from getting bigger going forward. That misses the point.

Bustin’ up “too big to fail”

Financial giants like Citigroup and Bank of America are already much too big and pose an economic threat. That’s why we refer to them as “too big to fail,” and why the government had to devote over $17 trillion to saving them. Obama must cap bank size and break up our behemoth banks into companies that are small enough to fail without wreaking havoc on the economy. A good rule of thumb: 1% of gross domestic product.

Shouting down the bank lobbyists

In Mother Jones, David Corn emphasizes that Obama’s credentials as a serious reformer depend more on his policy maneuvering than on his rhetoric. While it has been extremely promising see Obama finally demanding something serious from the financial giants that taxpayers saved, he’ll have to shout down the bank lobbyists to secure meaningful economic—or political—gains. Corn writes:

If Obama aims to be widely regarded as a warrior for the middle class, he will have to take some mighty swings that cut through the clutter. Proclaiming ‘I am a fighter’ will not be enough. He will have to name his foes (financial institutions, insurance companies, Republicans, and perhaps recalcitrant Democrats) and truly exchange blows.

Obama’s stance on the CFPA alone should be enough to get the lobbyists into a lather, but he’ll have to keep up the fight on multiple fronts if he wants to protect our economy from the Wall Street recklessness that spurred millions of foreclosures and sent the unemployment rate soaring into double digits.

Last week, Obama finally told us he was willing to fight for economic change. Now it looks like he’s going to attack anyone who is looking for a job. Let’s hope he turns it around before it’s too late.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Progressive bloggers and advocates set the stage for immigration reform in 2010

From the Restore Fairness blog.

"Not the usual suspects-" This is how Nico Pitney, National Editor for the Huffington Post and moderator on a panel discussion about the prospect of immigration reform, introduced his fellow panelists. Organized by the Center for American Progress, Netroots Nation, and America's Voice, the panel featured some of the leading voices for comprehensive and just immigration reform, including Markos Zúñiga, founder and editor of Daily Kos, Andrea Nill, immigration blogger for Think Progress, and María Elena Durazo from the AFL-CIO.

Using the context of Rep. Luis Gutierrez's progressive CIR ASAP immigration reform bill introduced in mid December, the recent election of Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts (and the obvious question of how this will affect the progressive agenda including immigration reform), President Obama's campaign promise to address immigration reform with his election, a lively discussion ensued on what makes the present time ripe for the passage of immigration reform legislation. Unlike the harsh and divisive debates of failed reform in 2007, the overall outlook amongst the panelists was positive, as they approached the topic from the point of view of electoral vote politics, the economy, and the labor movement.

Using Rep. Gutierrez's bill as a solid base, Andrea Nill began by clarifying the fundamentals of Comprehensive Immigration Reform which would include,

An earned path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, including registering with the government, a background check, paying taxes, and ensuring their integration into society.

Creating flexible channels for the future legal flow of immigration which could adjust itself to the ebb and flow of the economy.

Smart enforcement policies including moving resources away from spending money trying to detain and deport immigrants and "chasing busboys and nannies through the desert" into addressing problems such as drug and human trafficking at the border.

Markos Zuniga made the distinction between the political climate around immigration in 2007 and now by talking about today's polls that show 66% of voters (an equal percentage of Democrats and Republicans) support reform making it a truly bipartisan issue. With Latino groups reaching a plurality in 2050 and Asian and other minority communities growing rapidly, the co-relation between electoral votes and reform is clear. For many Republicans, falling back onto nativist rhetoric and hate-mongering like in 2007, could mean a significant loss in votes from Latino and other immigrant communities."President Bush won 40% of the immigrant vote in 2004, John McCain only got 28% in 2008, so the long term health of republican party is in jeopardy if they can't appeal to immigration groups."

Andrea Nill added that while there are three groups largely responsible for the nativist rhetoric - FAIR, NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies, there is also division between the anti-immigration movement, including within the Republican party between moderates willing to engage with immigration reform, and hardliners such as  Rep. Joe Wilson and Rep. Brian Bilbray and other members of the House Immigration Reform Caucas.

Speaking on behalf of  the labor movement, Maria Durazo said there is high expectations from the administration and Congress to deliver on its promise of reform."These are people who harvests our crops, build our buildings and work in our restaurant...they do services for us but then when we need to respond to their need to bring them out of the shadows we call them names - law breakers, illegals...we want to make sure any immigration legislation has protections for workers, both native born and undocumented immigrants who will come out of the shadows - because we will all lose if we don't work together."

In terms of Sen. Scott Brown's recent victory, the panelists felt that it has little effect since immigration reform has and always will be a bipartisan issue. But on a larger scale, the election felt emblematic of the waning of Democrat popularity due to their lack of engagement with many issues, including immigration, and while voters are looking for the 'hope' and 'change' that they were promised, immigration reform is an opportunity for both Democrats and Republicans to work together towards a viable solution.

But there is also an economic argument for reform. According to a recent Center for American progress report, immigration reform will be crucial for the economy, with mass deportation causing a loss of $2.6 trillion as opposed to a growth of approximately $1.5 trillion over a ten-year period if reform passes. And since the economy, like healthcare,  is a foremost priority of the Obama administration, this is an opportunity to address both issues simultaneously.

The panelists were unanimous on the fact that the present situation is highly favorable towards immigration reform and highlighted the expanse, width and strength of the present coalitions, which today include faith-based groups, LGBT groups, ethnic groups, immigrant rights advocates and immigrant communities in general.

Looking ahead, while Rep. Gutierrez's progressive immigration bill which has 90 co-sponsors would serve as the progressive conscience, everyone is waiting for the bill that Sen. Charles Schumer is working on with Sen. Lindsey Graham is introducing for debate in the Senate. It will then move to the House where it will be written by Rep. Zoe Lofgren.

The penultimate point of the discussion centered around ensuring that the mainstream media begin to report on the issue and mobilize around reform. Maria Elena pointed out the importance of providing people with honest information about the implications of enforcement actions such as raids and detention to families and the economy. Markos Zuniga pointed out that Latino and Asian communities are virtually invisible to the mainstream media, thus removing one side of the immigration story. Stressing the importance of building a pro-immigration story into the media narrative, the speakers highlighted the essential role of online journalism, blogging and networking in building knowledge and momentum for the movement.

Weekly Pulse: What Does Coakley’s Defeat Mean for Health Care Reform?

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium Blogger

Last night, Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in the special election to fill Teddy Kennedy’s senate seat in Massachusetts. Coakley’s loss puts health care reform in jeopardy.

With Coakley’s defeat, the Democrats lose their filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate. However, as Paul Waldman explains in The American Prospect, Coakley’s loss is not the end for health care reform.

Remember, the Senate already passed its health care reform bill in December. Now, the House has to pass its version of the bill. The original plan was for House and Senate leaders to blend the two bills together in conference to create a final piece of legislation (AKA a conference report) that both houses would vote on. Once the Democrats are down to 59 votes, the Republicans can filibuster the conference report and kill health care reform.

But if the House passes the same bill the Senate just passed, there’s no need to reconcile the two bills. This so-called “ping pong” approach may be the best way to salvage health care reform. Some of the flaws in the Senate bill could still be fixed later through budget reconciliation. It would be an uphill battle, but nothing compared to starting health care reform from scratch.

The second option would be to get the bill done before Scott Brown is sworn in. According to Waldman, there could be a vote within 10 days. The House and Senate have already drafted some compromise legislation, which Waldman thinks is superior to the straight Senate bill. If that language were sent to the Congressional Budget Office immediately, the Senate could vote before Brown is sworn in.

Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said in a statement last night that Brown won’t be sworn in until the election results are certified, a process that could take two weeks. Historically, the winners of special Senate elections have taken over from their interim predecessors within a couple of days. If the Republicans were in this position, they’d use every procedural means at their disposal to drag out the process. The question is whether the Democrats have the fortitude to make the system work for them.

Remember how the Republicans did everything in their power to hold up the Senate health care vote, including forcing the clerk to read the 767-page bill aloud? They were trying to delay the vote until after the Massachusetts special election. If it’s okay for the GOP to stall, the Democrats should be allowed to drag their feet on swearing in Brown.

Also, remember how the Republicans fought to keep Al Franken from being seated after he defeated Norm Coleman?  For his part, Franken says he’s determined to pass health care reform one way or another, according to Rachel Slajda of Talking Points Memo.

Incongruously, some Democrats are arguing that rushing to a vote would be a violation of some vague democratic principle. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) wasted no time in proclaiming that there should be no vote before Brown was sworn in. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), of all people, averred last night that the Democrats should respect the democratic process and start acting like they have 59 votes while they still have 60.

All this talk of  “respecting the process” is hand waving disguised as civics. According to the process, Scott Brown isn’t the senator from Massachusetts yet. According to the process, you have the votes until you don’t.

Talk about moving the goalposts. It’s bad enough that we need 60 votes to pass a bill on any given day. Now, they’d have us believe that we also need 60 votes next week. Webb and Frank are arguing that Brown’s victory obliges Democrats to behave as if Brown were already the Senator from Massachusetts. Of course, if Webb won’t play ball, it’s a moot point. The whole fast-track strategy is predicated on 60 votes. Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly thinks that Webb effectively took the fast-track option off the table with his strongly worded statement.

Katrina vanden Huevel of The Nation argues that this historic upset should be a wake up call to President Barack Obama to embrace populism with renewed fervor. I would add that Obama was elected on a platform of hope and change. There is no better way to fulfill a promise of change than to reshape the nation’s health care system and provide insurance for millions of Americans.

Ping pong, anyone?

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Hold The President Accountable

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is to begin running this 30 second spot to hold the President accountable for abandoning the public option. The YesWeStillCan.org petition has been signed by over 600 Obama campaign staffers, 40,000 Obama volunteers, and 60,000 Obama donors. You can also contribute to help keep this ad on the air.

The ad is entitled Obama Promised. According to the Huffington Post the PCCC is airing the ad in Wisconsin -- in addition to Washington D.C. -- in hopes of persuading Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) to drop his support for a bill without an additional element of government-run insurance. The goal is not necessarily to kill the Senate's legislation, but to use political leverage to make changes once it goes to conference committee with the House.

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