Election Means Major Energy Policy Changes

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., Sept. 3, 2010 – Look for significant changes in the way Congress addresses energy policy and legislation when the 112th Congress convenes in January 2011. By most expert accounts, Democrats are going to suffer major losses at the polls in November, with many pundits predicting a Republican takeover of the House and some suggesting the GOP will capture the Senate as well.

Even if the Republicans only succeed in narrowing the partisan balance in the House and Senate, the environment for energy legislation will become far more difficult. Major changes are inevitable in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, director of the U.Va. Center for Politics, has the GOP picking up 47 House seats, enough to swing control to the Republicans. The GOP would then have 225 seats and the Democrats 210. That means the energy and commerce regime of California’s politically-adroit liberal Henry Waxman will end, along with the influence of his fellow travelers, particularly Ed Markey, the grandstanding liberal from Massachusetts. Remember Waxman-Markey from the 111th Congress? Forget it for the 112th.

With Republicans in control of the House and the committee, chances of passage of any kind of cap-and-trade greenhouse gas legislation are nil. Even if the Republicans narrow the margin, but the Democrats retain control, the chances of major energy and greenhouse legislation are slim and none. Slim looks like he’s leaving the room. Waxman had to bend arms and cross palms with bacon fat to win his eponymous legislation. There likely won’t be votes for it under any circumstances.

If the GOP wins the House, who will rule the committee? Good question. Until BP’s Macondo well blew up, and BP executives threw up all over themselves, the answer was easy: former committee chairman Joe Barton of Texas. But Barton has apparently been banished to the Republicans’ political woodshed for stupidly telling the truth during committee hearings, defending BP against what amounted to Obama administration extortion of the $20 billion fund to recompense losses due to the well blowout. Barton subsequently was told privately that his chances of repeating as chairman of the all-powerful committee had dissolved in oily BP-water.

Barton’ sin – and it was large – was in giving the Democrats the chance to seize the day, or week, and unmercifully beat up the Republicans as tools of “Big Oil.” Sinners must pay, and political sinners pay politically. The GOP line, uttered by Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, is that the House Republican Steering Committee will make the decision on where Barton sits in the committee. But the betting is that he won’t be sitting with a gavel in his hand.

So that leaves? It’s not entirely clear. My bet is on Texan Ralph Hall, who hails from Red River Valley country. First elected in 1980 as a conservative Democrat and hunting buddy of long-time Democratic chairman John Dingell of Michigan, Hall insisted up until 2003 that he would not switch parties and become a Republican. But former House GOP leader and fellow Texan Tom DeLay pulled off a redistricting in the Lone Star State that put Hall’s career as a Democrat in jeopardy. So Hall became a Republican and easily won reelection.

The House GOP has a history of rewarding party switchers. Former Rep. Billy Tauzin, elected to Congress in 1980 as a Democrat, switched parties 1995 when the Republicans took over after the 1994 Gingrich revolution. He was chairman of the House energy committee from 2001 to 2004, when he became a drug industry lobbyist. Ironically, Tauzin tried in vain to get his son elected to succeed him in the House, but Billy the Third lost to Democrat Charlie Melancon, who got a seat on the energy committee. Melancon is now the Democratic nominee running against incumbent Republican Senator David Vitter, meaning he has left the House. Vitter has a large lead in the Senate race.

Over in the Senate, the energy committee will see a remarkable transformation, no matter which party controls the chamber come January. The most dramatic changes will come on the Republican side, where four of the 10 committee Republicans won’t be in the new Congress. That list includes Lisa Murkowski, who was the ranking Republican and likely chairman in a GOP Senate (she lost a primary), Sam Brownback of Kansas (running for governor), Bob Bennett of Utah (lost his nomination in a caucus vote), and Jim Bunning of Kentucky (retired). Republicans are expected to win all of those open races. On the Democratic side, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota is retiring, the only committee Democrat leaving Congress.

Larry Sabato predicts the GOP will pick up eight net Senate seats, and maybe nine, with 10 also a possibility. Ten means GOP control. In that case, North Carolina’s Richard Burr would be in the seniority line for the chairmanship. But I suspect he would turn the job down, as North Carolina is not a big energy producing state (sorry, Jim Rogers) and Burr would be in line to chair the Veterans Affairs committee, in a state where veterans are very important and Fort Bragg keeps pumping out more. If Burr were running in 2012, I suspect he might take the energy chairmanship, because it gives access to prodigious amounts of campaign cash. But he’s running this fall – in a fairly tight race that Congressional Quarterly rates as “likely Republican.”

If not Burr, then my guess is John Barrasso, a Wyoming physician who is fairly junior on the committee. He was first appointed to replace Republican Sen. Craig Thomas, who died in office, and then won a 2008 special election for the remainder of Thomas’s term. Barrasso is up for reelection in 2012. Barrasso is 48 and has focused his attention on health care issues. But Wyoming is the nation’s leading coal-producing state, with oil and gas and other minerals that fall under the jurisdiction of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Eight Republican pickups would mean a body consisting of 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and two Independents (Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders) who caucus with the Democrats. In that case, the current chairman, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, would keep the job. That would extend the long spell that legislators from the Land of Enchantment have had on the energy committee. Since 2002, either former Sen. Pete Domenici, a Republican, or Democrat Bingaman, have been chairmen of the committee.

What’s the likelihood of the Republicans gaining both the House and the Senate? U.Va.’s Sabato notes in his Crystal Ball political blog, “Since World War II, the House of Representatives has flipped parties on six occasions (1946, 1948, 1952, 1954, 1994, and 2006). Every time, the Senate flipped too, even when it had not been predicted to do so. These few examples do not create an iron law of politics, but they do suggest an electoral tendency.”

I’ll be out of the country for most of October, when the politicking gets particularly hot and heavy. I’ll weigh in again on the subject of Congressional energy politics after the election. Stay tuned for what promises to be a wild and crazy ride.