When Americans elected a Democratic Congress last November, they were voting to end politics as usual and special interest legislation. On the vital issues of energy independence and global warming they are not only in danger of getting more of the same but also, unless Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders step forward, winding up in worse shape than they were under the Republicans.
Exhibit A is a regressive bill drafted by John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat. For starters, the bill would override the recent Supreme Court decision giving the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, a decision that even President Bush has reluctantly embraced. It would also effectively block efforts by California and 11 other states to regulate and reduce greenhouse gases from vehicles at a time when the states are far ahead of the federal government in dealing with climate change.
The bill's fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks are weaker than the president's proposals and weaker still than standards the National Academy of Sciences says can be met using off-the-shelf technology. And the bill would open the door to a new generation of coal-to-liquid fuel plants favored by the coal lobby that could double the global warming gases of conventional gasoline.
The prospects for useful energy legislation are better in the Senate, where the majority leader, Harry Reid, has cobbled together a package that, with strengthening amendments, could do much to increase efficiency, clean up power plants and enlarge the country's stock of renewable fuels. Mr. Reid must guard against backsliding. But his task is easier than Ms. Pelosi's. He starts with a half-decent bill. She has to play defense against a bad one whose resourceful architect, Mr. Dingell, while sound on most environmental issues, will do almost anything to protect his constituents in the automobile industry.
We have some advice for Ms. Pelosi that may not work, but is worth a try. Rewind this movie to 1989, when President George H. W. Bush and a Democratic Congress decided to strengthen the Clean Air Act by clamping down harder on the tailpipe emissions that cause smog and acid rain. The automakers said it couldn't be done, and Mr. Dingell - who had spent the entire decade trying to weaken the law - rose to their defense.
Then something odd happened. Mr. Dingell's colleagues reasoned with him. The technology existed to clean the air, they pointed out. People would breathe easier, trees wouldn't die, the companies wouldn't go broke. Mr. Dingell thought about it, and while he never became a convert, he stepped aside and let the forces of change roll on.
Could it happen again? Mr. Dingell agrees that climate change is a big problem. The task now is to persuade him that having served history once, he can do so again. The alternative is further unnecessary delay in dealing with warming - which would be bad for the Democrats and bad for the world.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company