Could Democrats bring back the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming if they retake the majority in November?

Nobody is ready to say so—many House Democrats consider it taboo to even talk about what might happen if voters put them back in charge. But it’s almost universally accepted that one way or another, there would be an imperative to address climate change if Democrats controlled one or both chambers of Congress in 2019.

“If the Democrats take over, there’s probably going to be a big opening and plenty of momentum for climate legislation ... with more Republican support,” said Steve Valk, a spokesman for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a group that has helped assemble the bipartisan and growing House Climate Solutions Caucus.

Yet in contrast to an ad hoc caucus, an official panel would have greater powers and, quite possibly, a clear-cut mission.

The select committee had ambitious goals and an expansive agenda during its four-year life between 2007 and 2011, and it was in the thick of the congressional climate change debate. The panel held 80 hearings and briefing sessions on Capitol Hill and around the country, sent its members and staffers on fact-finding missions, and helped produce investigations and legislation during the two sessions of Congress when it was in business.

“I think there’s great merit in considering” bringing it back, said Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, the second-ranking Democrat on the select committee at the time, behind then-Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who was chairman.

The global warming panel, which had eight Democrats and six Republicans, was created by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after Democrats flipped control of the House in 2006. But it was quickly disbanded after Republicans seized the majority in 2010.

Blumenauer said the committee afforded lawmakers a rare opportunity to delve deeply into the issues surrounding energy production and climate change, and it was a boon for members of the committee—the Democrats, at least—who were searching for well-researched solutions.

“I think people were focused like a laser on trying to limit the damage” from global warming, Blumenauer said.

In a 63-page report to Pelosi issued at the end of the 111th Congress, as Republicans were about to take over, the panel summarized its work product. The highlights included:

  • Investigating the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill—the select committee was the first congressional panel to visit the Gulf region after the disaster, just three weeks after the explosion—and helping to craft legislation with stronger oversight of offshore drilling.
  • Overseeing clean energy spending in the 2009 economic stimulus package.
  • Negotiating with the Obama administration in 2009 on the “cash for clunkers” program, which gave Americans vouchers to trade in their old, gas-guzzling vehicles for new, efficient models.
  • Developing the “American Clean Energy and Security Act”—better known as the cap-and-trade bill—which narrowly passed the House in 2009 but then stalled in the Senate.
  • Helping to develop and pass the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act, an energy efficiency program for household and industrial appliances.
  • Working to improve cybersecurity protections for the U.S. electric grid.
  • Sending members to the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009.

“The Select Committee has been a central forum for discussion and debate of all these issues,” the report read.

But a Republican who served on the panel was not as enthusiastic about the experience.

“It was not fun,” former Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona recalled in a recent telephone interview from his Phoenix law office.

Shadegg, who also served on the Natural Resources and Energy and Commerce committees, said he was willing to serve on the global warming committee when asked by GOP leaders because he was interested in exploring “an all-of-the-above energy posture.” But he came away with the impression that Democrats on the special panel, especially Markey, had a preordained agenda that they were determined to see through, which, he said, compelled Republicans to take a more partisan posture.

“To the best of my knowledge, I didn’t learn much because there wasn’t much legitimate back-and-forth among the committee members or even among the witnesses,” Shadegg said. “It forced minority members to become as aggressive and confrontational as the Democrats were being.”

Even so, he conceded, bringing back the committee or something equivalent is worth considering, given the importance of addressing the challenges posed by climate change.

“I’m always in favor of Congress acting on solid information,” he said. “If someone says we ought to bring it back because we ought to be looking at this issue and looking down the road and focusing on sound science, I’m all for it.”

A more organic approach?

In some ways, the committee’s report from January 2011 appears frozen in time—but in other ways, it doesn’t. It lays out myriad dangers associated with a warming planet and potential policy prescriptions in a way that seemed new and galvanizing at the time. It was issued at the height of the tea party movement and, arguably, at the nadir of congressional Republicans’ willingness to address the climate crisis.

But at the same time, while the warnings and arguments sound familiar now, the debate has not changed much. Climate activists are recommending many of the same policy solutions today that they were a decade ago—and while President Trump and several other GOP leaders are firmly in the skeptic category, a newer generation of Republican lawmakers seems at least willing to acknowledge the problem and, in some cases, even embrace bold solutions.

That’s one of the reasons why Valk, of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, expressed skepticism about re-establishing a select committee to address global warming. He suggested that the more informal, organic approach being taken by the 72-member Climate Solutions Caucus could ultimately produce greater legislative results.

“I honestly don’t know if there’s a need for the select committee if they renew the Climate Solutions Caucus,” Valk said. “If they have a Climate Solutions Caucus, that probably represents the best vehicle for discussing climate change. Now we’ve got Republicans and Democrats talking to each other and trying to do things.”

But other climate activists are more keen on the idea. Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former U.S. EPA official during the Obama administration who is now the senior vice president of climate, environmental justice and community revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus, argued that a special committee should be created regardless of which party controls Congress.

“It shouldn’t take until the Democrats are in,” he said. “Those issues are nonpartisan, or should be.”

Some newer members of Congress who are active on climate issues seem receptive to the idea of bringing back a select committee.

Freshman Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.), who made climate a major part of her campaign to win a coastal district in southern Los Angeles County, said a special committee with Democrats setting the agenda would be the best way to confront the issue, because the Climate Solutions Caucus “feels a little like lip service.”

“I’m a firm believer that the Democratic Party is the only party that’s talking about it,” she said.

In the conclusion of its report at the end of the 111th Congress, the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming wrote: “Someday, our children and grandchildren will look back on the record of the Select Committee. That record will reflect a respectful and rigorous debate and an unprecedented understanding of the challenges before us. Whether or not they will see that this generation has taken bold action required by these challenges remains to be seen.”

More than seven years later, it still does.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.