“Richard Lugar, R-Indiana. Voted Yes. Our leading internationalist wants to send even more manufacturing jobs in Indiana overseas so that important diplomats at UN receptions will be nice to him.”
“Peter Fitzgerald, R-Illinois. Voted No last time. Fitzgerald leans Green and is retiring, which always encourages irresponsibility. So he needs shoring up.”
Ever wonder how amorphous ideas — good ideas, bad ideas, mediocre ideas — eventually turn into laws? Unless you’re a proper Capitol Hill insider, which most people aren’t, it would be surprising if it didn’t seem mysterious. After all, the transmogrification of thoughts into legislation isn’t something they teach in civics classes, if anyone still takes civics classes. Certainly it can’t be explained by a lecture on the three branches of government. Yet, if it isn’t part of the Constitution, it isn’t exactly magical either: Things happen in Washington — or don’t happen — because some people want them more than others.
“Judd Gregg, R-NH. Voted Yes. I don’t think we can turn his vote around this time, but he’s a possible long-term project.”
“Tim Johnson, D-SD. Voted Yes. We can’t change his vote, but it’s fun to see him squirm back home.”
In Washington, the people who want things to happen are called lobbyists, and they are usually portrayed as a dark force, users of black arts. While there is something to this, lobbyists do use ordinary telephones and faxes, the same as you and me. They also use e-mail to rally their supporters, to suggest tactics and to circulate ideas. A few days ago I received one such e-mail, which I have liberally quoted from in this column. I got it from a gleeful environmentalist, but the original author works for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an anti-environmental think tank partly funded with energy industry money and mainly motivated by opposition to regulation. The e-mail is a tactical document, and it refers to a titanic struggle taking place between the environmental and energy lobbyists. The idea at stake is climate change: Is it happening, is it bad, and if it’s bad should we pass a law limiting the carbon emissions that are said to cause it? The weapons are dueling scientific studies and rival conferences. The pawns, of course, are the members of the U.S. Senate.
“Robert Byrd, D-WV. Voted No last time. . . . It’s incredible that Byrd might switch, but he hates Bush, is increasingly frail and the staffer in charge is a true believer. Apparently, the WV economy no longer needs coal.”
More specifically, the bitter struggle is over a piece of legislation known as the Climate Stewardship Act, a bill that stands no chance of passing the Senate or House anytime soon. To put it simply, the bill would allow companies to buy and sell the right to emit carbon dioxide, the gas thought to cause global warming. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) say such a law would help reduce carbon emissions without bankrupting us or locking us into a rigid international system. Opponents say that global warming isn’t happening, that if it were the bill wouldn’t stop it anyway, and that in any case, it would be expensive and destroy jobs. Last fall 43 senators voted in favor of the bill, which was not enough to pass, but more than anyone expected. Since then the sponsors have been trying to orchestrate another vote to create more public pressure on an issue that the public, in poll after poll, says it worries about.
“Mike DeWine, R-Ohio. Voted No. Sometimes a little wobbly, he has reportedly given no assurances this time.”
“Mary Landrieu, D-LA. Voted No last time. Landrieu would like to do something on global warming, but knows this bill will destroy jobs in Louisiana, so she will probably vote No again. But she needs encouragement.”
Last week McCain and Lieberman almost succeeded in attaching the bill, known in Senate-speak as S. 139, as an amendment to another bill. The move failed, but opponents went into overdrive anyway. Phones started ringing. Faxes started faxing. And uncounted numbers of Senate aides were presumably approached by people who had received the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s list of “wobbly” senators (the “Target List”) as well as the suggested points to make to them (“Talking Points”):
“S. 139 is energy rationing.”
“Honesty in advertising would require that S. 139 be titled the High-Paying Jobs Outsourcing Act.”
“If you like high gas prices, you should love S. 139.”
It’s completely unfair, I realize, to quote from this one memo and not from similar memos that are no doubt circulating among the “Greens” on the other side. But this is the one that got sent to me. And because the public will never otherwise know why it is that talk of climate change somehow got drowned out, so to speak, in the summer of 2004, it seemed important to shine a tiny sliver of light onto this otherwise murky political process. And besides, it made me laugh.