Testifying in Congress on the Climate Action Partnership

Last week ago, I was asked to testify before the Environment and Public Works Committee, now chaired by Senator Barbara Boxer of California. Testifying is an interesting process—one writes a short paper dealing with the intellectual aspects of the topic and then present a brief oral statement (loosely based on one’s written testimony) to the Committee in person. The topic was the work of the Climate Action Partnership (CAP), an alliance of businesses and environmental groups calling for restraints on carbon-based energy use in America. 

My comments dealt with the fact that for businesses to seek a government-enforced cartel is nothing new—and scarcely admirable. Enron, I noted, had been one of the early champions of that approach. That environmentalists had joined in this alliance merely illustrated that the “Baptist and Bootlegger” phenomenon was alive and well . But the responses of the Committee members proved again that old saying by the king to his son: It sometimes worries me when I realize with what little wisdom the kingdom has managed! 

Senator Boxer was irate that I (and Senator Kit Bond) had raised the Enron linkage. Enron, you see, was motivated by “bad reasons” and the members of the CAP (including GE, Caterpillar, Duke Energy, DuPont, PG&E, and Cinergy) were motivated by “good reasons.” So there! She also suggested that her goal was to ensure that “politics didn’t distort decisions in this area!” Politics in the U.S. Senate? That’s like gambling at Rick’s Café, I’m shocked!

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont was critical of the auto industry noting that the federal government had provided to this sector massive amounts of corporate welfare and yet fuel efficiency levels hadn’t improved. Unfortunately, he did not draw from that observation any realization that government-mandated technology policies are rarely effective. The government forced the automakers to spend vast sums to increase energy efficiency, but then consumers placed greater value on non-energy saving purposes—greater internal space, bigger trunks, more safety, and better performance. The automobile of today is very different from the automobile of the 1980s (as is the American home and, more recently, the American home computer, both of which also use more energy more efficiently) but that fact wasn’t discussed. Sens. Sanders and Boxer, in a brief colloquy raised Roger Rabbit and the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? Then, without a pause, both went on to recommend massive corporate welfare for alternative energy. Why this form of corporate welfare would work better than those of the past (think Synfuels) received no discussion.

Several senators seemed to believe that the United States had not signed the Kyoto Protocol or rather that we were no longer a signatory to that agreement. Chairman Boxer stated that the Clinton-Gore administration had signed the treaty but then President Bush had rescinded that treaty. He didn’t; he said his administration would not seek ratification. However, we at CEI have suggested unsigning this treaty. One would have thought that the Democratic staff would have been better informed. But knowledge is rarely valued highly in Congress and even less when one has power. 

Sadly, congressional hearings are best viewed as theater. The majority staff seeks to create the illusion that all truth is on one side of the equation—and all villainy on the other. Boxer and company didn’t succeed but they did try, and may try again. The next few years will be interesting.