First of a few blogs on House Democrats and global climate change.
By William S. Becker
To Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Welcome to Washington D.C. You have just joined the ranks of new members of Congress, fresh from their first election victories, energized and ready to change the world, only to find that Congress won’t let them. But please don’t stop trying.
To everyone else: Here is some background and a few observations. Ocasio-Cortez is breath of fresh air, a former bartender from New York. She is 29 years old, a self-described socialist like Bernie Sanders, photogenic, Puerto Rican and part of the surge of women who ran for Congress and were elected to last November. She became a media sensation when she won the Democratic primary election against veteran Rep. Joe Crowley, who had not had a primary opponent in 14 years. When she takes her seat in the House on Jan. 3, Ocasio-Cortez will be the youngest woman ever to serve there.
Riding on the momentum of her election and her notoriety, Ocasio-Cortez wasted no time preparing to make a difference in the House. She participated in a sit-in of young people at the office of the presumed Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to call for concrete, aggressive action on global climate change.
She authored a House resolution to create a bipartisan Select Committee on the Green New Deal. Still loosely defined, the Green Deal is a movement for action on climate change, a rapid shift to renewable energy, narrowing of the wealth gap, environmental and social justice, and more. The Select Committee would have one year to write a plan to implement these goals.
Unfortunately, this idea one-upped a Pelosi plan to revive a Select Committee on Energy Independence and Climate Change that she created several years ago. Nevertheless, Ocasio-Cortez and a group of young people who call themselves the Sunrise Movement rounded up support for a Green New Deal from dozens of members of Congress and hundreds of state and local officials who expressed their support for ending fossil energy subsidies and achieving 100% renewable energy in the U.S. It was an impressive bit of rapid organizing.
But just after Christmas, Ocasio-Cortez learned that Democrat leaders in the House preferred Pelosi’s committee. The leadership appointed Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, a 13-year veteran in the House, to chair it. Even Pelosi, as skilled and powerful a leader as the House has seen in memory, had to overcome pushback from the chairman of another House committee with jurisdiction on climate change. It’s difficult to tell whether this competition for leadership is a sign of genuine interest in getting something done, or an example of politicians trying to jump in front of a parade.
What we do know for certain is that Democrats had better not blow the opportunity to put climate change high on the congressional agenda, to use their bully pulpits to build public support for substantive action, and to lay the groundwork for legislation two years from now to price carbon and to replant the environmental protections that Trump uprooted. But at the moment, in the words of filmmaker Ken Burns, Democrats need a little more Pluribus and a little less Unum.
As for Ocasio-Cortez, let’s hope she is not be discouraged from breaking a few eggs, breaking a few rules, and bruising a few egos in the House and in the Democratic caucus. If she bucks the leadership too hard or too often, she probably will be assigned a windowless office next to the boiler room in the basement of a House office building. But that is the price rebels pay, and a rebellion is what’s required now to end Congress’s gross negligence on addressing global warming. For a decade now, climate change has been the crisis whose name could not be spoken in Congress. It is now the crisis whose urgency cannot be ignored.
Next, we say we want a revolution.