A Senate Leader Lights the Way

July 3, 2012
Kevin Knobloch
Former contributor

As someone who had the privilege of serving as a legislative staffer in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, I have long appreciated the differences that the framers of the Constitution designed into the two chambers’ respective DNA.

They had in mind a House that was closer to the electorate and more likely to reflect the popular will of any given moment. Thus, their design exposed representatives to re-election every two years, ensured manageable-sized districts, and allowed a simple majority to resolve most issues.

The Senate was to be more deliberative, to cool what Edmund Randolph called “the fury of democracy” that boiled in the House, and to proceed, as James Madison said, “with more wisdom, than the popular branch.”

When both chambers perform as the framer’s intended, the results can be both responsive to the voters’ passion for change and wise in the implementation of that change.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, in delivering an exceptional speech on climate change on the floor of the Senate on June 19, showcased the kind of leadership the framers hoped for when they designed the Senate part of the bi-cameral national legislature.

His stirring remarks, in which he said, “As a matter of conscience and common sense, we should be compelled to fight today’s insidious conspiracy of silence on climate change,” embodied a refreshing counter model to the modern-day revisionist interpretation by some of the framer’s intent. That erroneous view believes the Senate’s role is not simply to slow down the forward motion of legislative action, to allow for more deliberate consideration, but to routinely kill or paralyze it.

A case in point

We saw this cynical perspective play out in 2009 and 2010, when the House overcame expectations and passed comprehensive, far-reaching legislation to reduce climate pollution and transition to a clean energy economy. The Waxman-Markey bill passed on June 26, 2009, by a vote of 219-212 .

The House was responding to a growing call among Americans for national action to address the threat of climate change and a growing and alarming body of science documenting that threat.

The debate in the House Energy and Commerce Committee and subsequently on the House floor fully aired the concerns of the industries that would be affected by the proposed legislation—agriculture, coal mining, electricity generation, oil and gas exploration and refining, heavy manufacturing etc.—and the bill was adjusted to give those industries flexibility and public assistance/investment to make the historic transition to clean energy.

The bill’s targets to reduce heat-trapping pollution, phased in over time, reflected what decades of robust science indicated were needed to give us a fighting chance to lessen the most damaging impacts of climate change.

The founding framers would have said that the House did its job very well.

The Senate, not so much.

Cynical obstruction in the Senate

Despite the generous, patient and flexible efforts of Senators Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman to move comparable climate and clean energy legislation in their chamber, the bill was stopped cold in the summer of 2010 by a minority of senators and powerful fossil fuel industry players. There were a number of significant reasons why this legislation didn’t get to President Obama’s desk as he asked, which are insightfully discussed elsewhere , but many of us believed at the time that we would have received an affirmative majority had the Senate been allowed to vote up or down.

This failure of the Senate to act was contrary to what the framers intended.  Slowing down the fury of democracy doesn’t mean punting a major national threat to the indefinite future. It means carefully ensuring that a bill will achieve it set out to do and softening the impact on the economic sectors that will be most affected.

And it means responsibly weighing the long-term needs and interests of our country, and, if necessary, acting courageously in the face of powerful, well-financed interests that ferociously fight to protect narrow, often short-term interests.

A giant speech

This bit of historical punditry brings me back to Senator Kerry’s climate speech, an example of strong leadership that would have made the framers, along with Senate giants Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Robert LaFollette, Arthur Vandenberg, Lyndon Johnson and Ted Kennedy, proud.

At a moment in the Congress’ history when it is unfashionable to talk about the increasing dangers of the disruptions in our climate, and even more so to decry the unprincipled attacks on climate scientists, Sen. Kerry did both in a compelling and welcome speech.

He began by citing President George H. W. Bush’s declaration at Rio 20 years ago that “[t]he United States fully intends to be the world’s pre-eminent leader in protecting the global environment,” and then noting the “strange and dangerous place on this issue” that we are in today, “a place this former president wouldn’t even recognize.”

Citing another great American, Thomas Paine, who said, “It is an affront to treat falsehood with complaisance,” Sen. Kerry said, “As a matter of conscience and common sense, we should be compelled to fight today’s insidious conspiracy of silence on climate change—a silence that empowers misinformation and mythology to grow where science and truth should prevail.”

He said that “a calculated campaign of disinformation has steadily beaten back the consensus momentum for action…and replaced it with timidity by proponents in the face of millions of dollars of phony, contrived ‘talking points,’ illogical and wholly unscientific propositions, and a general scorn for truth wrapped in false threats about job loss and taxes.”

Much of the remainder of his speech provides a deeply knowledgeable discussion of the body of climate science and energy economics that is well worth reading even if you think you know all you need to know. (Perhaps especially if you think you know all you need to know.)

We all bear responsibility

But it is Sen. Kerry’s charge that all of us—advocates and opponents of action alike—have “stood by and let it all happen” that makes this speech stand out, and fall well within the Senate tradition intended by the framers.

His statement, “We’ve treated falsehood with complacence and allowed a conspiracy of silence on climate change to infiltrate our politics,” is neither left nor right nor Democratic or Republican. It is the unvarnished truth, and a statement of integrity.

Maybe Sen. Kerry is on the vanguard of a counter wave to the anti-science no-nothings who have been in the ascendancy for much of this past decade. Look around, and you can see reason starting to gain new energy and courage.

Just this week, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that global warming pollutants endanger public health, rejecting a legal challenge from some industries.  “This is how science works,” the three justices wrote in their unanimous decision. “The EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question.”

Sen. Kerry is asking for us to return to evidence-based decision-making, and with the interests of our nation very much foremost in his mind. The great American symbiotic relationship of science and democracy has delivered time and again, bearing a prolific stream of gains in health, welfare, security and prosperity to Americans and people around the world. It’s a compelling story that needs to be told, from the rooftops and in meeting halls and on street corners.

When Sen. Kerry finished his speech, I was proud of him and the Senate, and inspired by the possibilities that can come when a leader steps up and shows the way.