Another Reporter Revises History of Congressional Climate Policy

Over at BNA Energy and Environment Blog, Dean Scott has an interview with Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). At one point, the discussion turned to a 2009 cap-and-trade bill co-authored by then-Rep. Markey and the formidable Rep. Henry Waxman. According to Scott:

No one could predict that the bill’s narrow passage in the House in June 2009—by a vote of 219-212—would be the high point for a bill that died a year later without even a vote on the Senate floor. And in a harbinger of the partisan divide on climate change that has only deepened in the years since, the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act garnered just eight Republican votes.

Scott’s brief history is only two sentences, but it contains two glaring errors. First, many people predicted that the bill’s passage in the House was its high water mark. I was far from being the only observer to think that the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill faced dim odds in the upper chamber.

Scott’s second mistake is to claim that the vote in the House was defined by a “partisan divide.” While it’s true that “just” 8 republicans voted for the bill, it’s also true that 44 democrats—17% of the House party caucus—voted against the bill. In fact, the bill’s narrow passage is attributable primarily to all the procedural tricks employed by its sponsors, which my colleague Myron Ebell described here back in 2009. Opposition to the bill was healthily bipartisan, contrary to what Scott reports.

Scott is not alone, however. It’s unfortunately common among reporters to reinvent a highly partisan history of climate policy in Congress. For example, in a late 2015 story for the New Yorker, Jonathan Chait wrote the following about what ultimately happened to the Senate version of a cap-and-trade in the 111th Congress:

[I]n 2010, President Obama, temporarily enjoying swollen Democratic majorities in both houses, tried to pass a cap-and-trade law that would bring the U.S. into compliance with the reductions it had pledged in Copenhagen. A handful of Democrats from fossil-fuel states joined with nearly every Republican to filibuster it.

In a fact check of Chait’s article, I wrote the following about the above paragraph:

For starters, President Obama did not “try to pass a cap-and-trade law.” In fact, the “cap-and-trade” in question never made it out of the democrat party caucus in the Senate. More to the point, the President effectively killed the effort by punting on a meeting about the measure with Senate democrat leadership. Also, while it’s true that opposition to the bill was bipartisan, there was never a filibuster. Again, the bill never made it out of the democrat Senate caucus, due to intra-party opposition. Republicans didn’t have to lift a finger. So Chait’s history is totally wrong (again).

There are other reporters that make up history when it comes to congressional climate policy. Ezra Klein does it, too.