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US Cap-and-trade needs ‘The Treatment’ to pass

February 24, 2010

The Obama administration could learn a lot about how to pass a carbon pricing bill from LBJ. Bear with me…

To give the background, Reuters reports that its pretty much now or not this year for a US cap-and-trade bill.

The consensus view is that even though there might be 60 supporters of some form of climate bill in the US Senate this year, it will be impossible to get them to agree on a single bill, even leaving aside election strategy – block everything! – by the Republicans. 

But John Kerry remains undeterred. He’s still saying he wants to push a carbon pricing bill this year. And seems pretty determined.

This contradicts influencial Senate Finance Committee Chariman, Max Baucus’ (D), view that that his Committee is not interested this year. That probably has just a tad to do with the fact that Baucus is from an energy/industrial/agricultural state – Montana. Not so many votes for carbon pricing in Montana.

In truth Kerry’s comments suggest that he can’t finalise a formula on the bill yet, because he can’t see a way to get 60 votes.

Kerry admitted his upbeat outlook was “completely contrary to any conventional wisdom,” and indicated he still had to convince some of his own Democrats to go along with a bill.

He also hinted no decision had been made on the core of a climate bill: the mechanism for bringing about declining emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

“Every mechanism that’s out there is on the table,” Kerry told reporters after his speech.

In a sign that Republican input is still possible, a senior senator from the party is looking at the possibility of dealing with climate change by imposing a carbon tax, something Republicans have traditionally ruled out.

Kerry’s problem is that early next year the Congress officially changes over. The 111th Congress becomes the 112th, so the bills not yet reconciled and passed in both houses are annulled and you have to start again from zero.

So with the prospect of a more fractured Senate in 2011 than 2010, what are Obama’s options? 

In short, he would need a way to cajole centrist Republicans and wavering Democrats like Baucus to get behind a common bill. But how the hell do you do that?

Well for one thing, there is probably going to be broad enough support for some kind of a carbon price, even after the election. Sure, there are Republicans like Inhofe who are anti-science ideologues, but there are also your Scott Browns, you’re John McCains (hypocritical and sore loser though he is), your Lisa Murkowskis and Cynthia Snowes, etc, who love their energy security and are sympathetic to the climate issue. It’s just that they can’t give Dems a win this year, before November, let alone two (health care, maybe?) . 

If the economy improves during the next 12-18 months, then that would also be a shot in the arm.  But more generally, Obama needs a way to get Republicans to work with him. Indeed the extent to which he can will almost certainly define his Presidency.

So, it was with great interest then, that last night I came across this passage in the Reader’s Campanion to the American Presidency’s chapter on LBJ:

At the close of his presidency, LBJ’s cabinet presented him with a catalog of domestic achievements during the five years and two months of his administration. The front inside cover of Johnson’s memoirs, The Vantage Point, lists two pages of “landmark laws” with which he and the Congress “wrote a record of hope and opportunity for America.”

There is no denying Johnson’s role in making this record…Johnson was as great an executive legislator who ever sat in the White House. He had largely learned his craft as Senate Majority Leader where he had cultivated the art of exchanging favours for favours. Leading a bill through the Congress, he told Doris Kearns Goodwin, meant attending to legislative business “continuously, incessantly, and without interruption. If it is really going to work the relationship between the President and the Congress has got to be almost incestuous. He’s got to know them even better than they know themselves. And then, on the basis of this knowledge, he’s got to build a system  that stretches from the cradle to the grave, from the moment the bill is introduced to the moment it is officially made the law of the land.”

Texas Congressman, Jake Pickle [!], remembers how Johnson, “contrary to almost any President I’ve ever heard of, was on the phone constantly, talking to members of the Senate and House. It would be nothing for him to talk to 20 or 30 different congressman or senators a day about a given matter.” And he was “awfully persuasive”.  “He’s about the best close-in eye-ball saleman that you’ll run accross.”

Indeed, LBJ was apparently such a great and forceful cajoler, that his lobbying sessions came to be infamously referred to as receiving “The Treatment”.

It included, “supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, the hint of threat…It ran the gamut of human emotions. It’s velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. . . . . He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from the target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling….Mimicry, humour, the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.”  

But LBJ was no doubt a master salesmen because he knew exactly how to pitch his sell. And what buttons to push:

Massachussets Republican Silvio Conte remembered how LBJ called to thank him “on behalf of the nation for your vote” Conte “damn near collapsed right on the spot…It’s the only time since I have been in Congress that I have ever had a president call me. I will never forget it”…Similarly, Johnson took pains to assure that his Great Society proposals would not antagonise the most conservative members of Congress. He instructed Larry O’Brien, for example, to send aid to the Capitol to tell [them] that the President was ready to see them “any time a serious problem arises”.

And he knew how to achieve kinds of gentlemen’s agreement’s between different Senators, using “logrolling” – i.e. where one Senator backed down on one issue in return for the other backing off a  little on another issue. Like this he would apparently forge alliances of several Senators that were critical to passing bills. One can only hope that this was the strategy behind the $8.3 billion nuclear loans program, or the decision to put the breaks on the EPA recently, coming from the Democrats.  I’m not sure if Demcorats aren’t just being played for suckers, to be honest, since we still seem a long way from consensus. 

LBJ, on the other hand, knew the power of a bit of pork, and he wielded it well:

Defiant legislators paid a price for their independence. When Senator Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat who wnet against the President on a major bill, defended his vote by saying that noted columnist Walter Lippmanm shared his views, Johnson replied: “I’ll tell you what, Frank, next time you want a dam in Idaho, you call Walter Lippmann and let him put it through for you.”

Indeed, coded in those words, “The President needs you help for the country” is the implication: “but one day you may need him for your constituency”. And if you don’t read it like that, then you are more likely to be noble minded and pre-disposed to doing something for the President and the country in the first place!

Sure, Obama has Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emmanuel to supposedly do all this for him, and its impossible to see Obama trying anything so emotive, unprofessorial and unbecoming as The Treatment. But it does seem a far cry from the successful strategies of LBJ, when we read of Obama as the aloof President, who lets the Congress do the work of coming up with the compromises and treating it as a seperate branch of government able to function in its own right.

Indeed in the case of cap-and-trade, we now have something like 7 different Senate bills all proposing radically different kinds of carbon pricing. That seems a far cry from following the legislative program incessantly, from cradle to the grave.  

One wonders if, having ceded so much authority to the Congress in his first year, Obama will ever be able to recapture control of it again. We can only hope and have faith that Obama is learning a lot from his health care, financial reform and jobs bill fights.

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