President Obama’s fiscal 2012 budget request makes a big bet on clean energy, asking Congress for $8 billion in spending to boost electric cars, wind and solar power, clean-energy manufacturing, and development of nuclear reactors.
Given the realities of a Republican-controlled House eager to slash spending and reduce government—and stocked with climate-change skeptics—does any of this have a chance of happening?
In years past, a small but reliable cadre of moderate Republicans supported clean-energy spending. That was particularly true of members with facilities such as national energy labs or hybrid-vehicle manufacturers in their home districts.
It’s also helped that federal spending on clean energy has always been relatively paltry—and even this year’s request isn’t much of a boost. In 2010, Congress approved $6.6 billion in funding for clean-energy programs across the federal government. A number of moderate Republicans even quietly voiced restrained support for elements of the $40 billion in clean-energy spending in 2009’s economic-stimulus package.
And in the often heated and partisan budget process, the House and Senate Energy-Water Appropriations panels, which determine spending levels for the Energy Department, have traditionally been a surprising oasis of bipartisanship.
In the current political environment, particularly in the House, the tea party-fired zeal for paring government spending makes any increase ripe for attack. And the new energy spending stands out all the more in a budget request that trims and freezes funds for almost everything else.
It stands out, too, because President Obama has made clean-energy spending central to his vision for economic recovery—very close to the start of the 2012 election cycle. And linking clean-energy spending to the partisan issue of climate-change mitigation suddenly turns what was once a politically neutral backwater corner of the annual appropriations process into a high-profile partisan target.
So moderates who might once have quietly cast their votes for a $100 million research program for electric-car battery development will probably pull back and toe the party line rather than risk handing Obama a major victory ahead of a presidential election.
“The variable this go-around is that this is no longer a neutral conversation,” said Mike McKenna, a GOP strategist and expert on energy policy. “It used to be a conversation between both sides on, ‘Do we feel like spending $4 billion or $5 billion or $6 billion on renewable energy?’ We’re in a new environment—where every piece is tested against the need to cut the government. For everybody who refuses to rule out [supporting a clean-energy standard] there [are] five or six guys who came to Washington to reduce federal spending. That’s why the president’s energy budget is DOA.”
McKenna noted that the emphasis the White House has put on clean energy may be the very thing that dooms it. “By making such a big thing of this, [the administration has] put off any Republican who may have been inclined to do everything from enthusiastically support this stuff to look the other way and vote for it,” he said. “Whatever the merits are, it’s now colored by partisan preferences. It didn’t used to be a party-line vote, but now it will be.”
Among those onetime moderates now toeing the party line is House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., who has long supported renewable energy but has tacked hard to the right since taking up a gavel during this Congress. The energy-policy point man for House Republicans slammed the president’s proposal.
“I am particularly disappointed to see the White House continuing its efforts to manipulate free enterprise—whether on energy or health care or technology, this budget continues to advance policies in which the federal government picks winners and losers, rather than letting the American people and the power of competition identify the most efficient, effective investment of resources,” Upton said in a statement.
In the end, the Obama energy proposal appears more likely to have a future as a political talking point—or punching bag—than as actual policy, at least in the next two years.
Even Energy Secretary Steven Chu appeared to acknowledge on Monday that the proposal’s prospects of success on the Hill may be slim.
“We’ll take it a day at a time,” Chu said when asked about the hostile environment energy spending will face, then reiterating Obama’s State of the Union talking point. “The president’s request is about winning the future.”
This article appears in the Feb. 15, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.