Climate’s Filibuster Problem: Why Transformation Requires More Than Reconciliation
July 27, 2021
By Kristina Karlsson, Rhiana Gunn-Wright
The climate crisis poses an existential threat to the planet, humanity, and the economy—but to pass the climate policy we need, we must abolish the filibuster.
Meeting the emission reductions and climate justice goals set forth by the Biden-Harris administration and the Paris Agreement mandate requires substantial federal spending—largely financed by deficit spending. It also requires creating and funding new programs and agencies dedicated to the climate crisis and implementing cross-cutting equity, labor, and environmental justice standards, like Justice40, to ensure that the new green economy reduces, rather than deepens, inequality.
Legislation of this scale and scope is guaranteed to face a filibuster. As a workaround, progressives are attempting to pass a pared-down climate agenda through budget reconciliation. But the budget reconciliation process is the wrong tool to deliver the large-scale, structured interventions we need to adequately address the climate crisis, especially when it comes to equity and environmental justice.
Budget reconciliation is a process designed to make adjustments to the congressional budget, with strict guardrails in place that limit the impact to the federal deficit, ensure that provisions only pass if their intended purpose is a budgetary impact, and prohibit the creation of new programs with clear, qualitative goals in mind. These limitations will block adequate climate legislation.
We cannot pass needed, transformational climate investments through budget reconciliation.
The scale of federal investments necessary to transform our economy and meet the scope and urgency of the climate crisis will require that we use deficit spending to meet Paris Agreement decarbonization targets. While there is growing consensus that deficit spending is both necessary and will stimulate the economy, reconciliation imposes limitations on the scale of investments that can be passed.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) mandates that the final reconciliation bill must reduce or increase the federal deficit by no more or less than a specific amount. The CBO also has the final word in determining how any legislation, including reconciliation bills, will affect the budget. However, several assumptions the CBO makes in its cost analysis indicate that its process is poorly equipped to quantify the impact of climate policies.
The Byrd Rule further conditions that the final reconciliation bill cannot be projected to increase the federal deficit after 10 years. Taken together, these stipulations to the reconciliation process could decrease the scale of climate investments significantly and promote a “pay for” approach to climate policy that limits ambition. If budget reconciliation remains the only tool for passing climate policy, it will be nearly impossible to meet the scale of the crisis.
Through budget reconciliation, we can’t include cross-cutting standards related to labor rights, environment justice, or equity of any kind.
A core tenet of the Green New Deal—one that has been adopted by the Biden-Harris administration and many Democrats on Capitol Hill as part of their approach to climate policy—is that we cannot reproduce a green version of our economy that further entrenches runaway corporate power, white supremacy and environmental racism, and exploitative labor relationships. To accomplish this, climate champions and advocates have designed and recommended various labor and equity standards that should apply to new and old climate investments, including those outlined in the Justice 40 stipulations in President Biden’s executive order and in the THRIVE Act—an ambitious green economic recovery bill sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), among others, and developed by a coalition of movements known as the Green New Deal Network.
Under the reconciliation process, it has been much easier to add or subtract funding within the budget than to include qualitative stipulations on how that money is spent—for example, mandating that 40 percent of the money allocated for a given program go to frontline communities, or that investments in a job-creating program be conditional on employers signing a union neutrality agreement. Without labor standards in place, even green jobs that will move our economy toward decarbonization may pay poorly and disproportionately benefit white people and men. Furthermore, without standards mandating that funding be distributed equitably, climate mitigation and disaster relief investments will continue to benefit affluent, white communities while excluding Black and Indigenous peoples.
The budget reconciliation process locks us into the status quo and forces us to operate within the existing structure of climate policy.
Even in this moment of unprecedented attention to climate policy, we still don’t have programs and policies in place that meet the scale and urgency of the crisis. To meet the Paris Agreement mandate of limiting warming to 1.5°C, we will need to create brand-new programs and develop new industries. But reconciliation is not designed to catalyze structural change.
Under the reconciliation process, climate, labor, and equity standards can only apply to new programs or new allocations of money, not to existing programs. This means that even if we are successful in arguing for any standards or stipulations on how money is spent, budget reconciliation requires that existing programs stay largely the same—we could not fix inequitable outcomes of existing climate policy or impose new emissions standards on existing infrastructure funding.
Furthermore, because of the requirement that reconciliation bills include only provisions that have a “budgetary impact,” it is much easier to fund existing programs than to establish new ones. This means it may be easier to increase funding to LIHEAP, for example, than to establish a new funding stream dedicated to electrifying public transit that mandates increased government procurement of the necessary electric vehicles and includes provisions that require the retirement of gas-powered vehicles by a certain date.
The filibuster blocks a “whole of government” approach to the climate crisis.
In an executive order, President Biden committed to launching a “whole of government” approach to fighting the climate crisis. He plans to “put climate change at the center of our domestic, national security, and foreign policy.” But in order to do so, we will have to design and pass policies that apply across funding streams, agencies, and industries.
Because reconciliation is a budget process, changes are made by line item and allocation. This makes it very difficult to pass provisions that apply across funding streams. Procedurally, this poses major challenges to coordinating efforts across the federal government. Different committees have jurisdiction over specific parts of the budget and must deliberate over provisions in silos. For example, funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy rests with two different committees, so reconciliation makes it very difficult to design plans to increase funding for EPA enforcement of air pollution standards for power plants that work in tandem with new Department of Energy funding to increase distributed energy deployment. This could stymie efforts to, say, reduce pollution from peaker plants (power plants that are used to provide additional capacity during times of “peak” electricity demand and are often incredibly polluting) in frontline communities while financing new community solar gardens and rooftop solar installations.
When it comes to an issue as intersectional and encompassing as climate change, the piecemeal approach to passing policy required by budget reconciliation drastically limits our ability to attack problems holistically and at a scale and structure necessary to create meaningful change. As long as the filibuster stays, communities will suffer.