How Bills Get So Bad
The next time you wonder why Congress seems incapable of producing clean, clear policy -- without built-in inefficiencies, subsides and the myriad other ways its members devise to deliver legislative payoffs -- consider the drubbing Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) is getting back home on his August break. At the Farmfest Expo in Redwood Falls, Minnesota yesterday, Peterson faced an unhappy crowd of rural voters skeptical of his recent vote in favor of the House-passed Waxman-Markey energy bill, which would cap greenhouse gas emissions. Playing some D, Peterson insisted that the reason he voted for it was because the bill wasn’t going to become law immediately -- implying that the Senate would make it even more generous to rural interests.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Waxman-Markey. But many of them are the direct results of the sorts of payoffs these very rural voters are demanding of their congressmen. Peterson brought consideration of the bill to a stand-still in the House until its authors agreed to some massive concessions to the farm lobby, which include giving the farmer-friendly Agriculture Department (USDA) power to distribute valuable pollution “offsets” to American planters. In other words, legislative gravy at odds with the stated purpose of the bill. USDA now projects that farmers will actually make money off of Waxman-Markey.
Such narrow parochialism is responsible for many of the bill’s other deficiencies, including its original sin: that 85 percent of “allowances” -- valuable securities that give the holder the right to pollute and can be sold -- are to be given out to politically-favored groups in the opening years of the cap-and-trade system, which will make the transition to a cleaner economy a lot bumpier. Among those singled out for special treatment are -- surprise -- rural electric cooperatives and utilities, which rely disproportionately on coal.
But, somehow, all that -- even the prospect of net profits -- apparently isn’t enough, judging from the Farmfest folks. (I suppose you can’t really blame them, considering how brazen the farm bloc has been about sucking billions in free cash out of Washington in the form of agricultural subsidies.) Today also brings word that a group of small Midwestern electricity distributors seem to be bucking an industry-wide agreement on the bill and pushing for more handouts in the Senate. And farm-state senators are getting the message. The end result could be ugly, indeed.
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