Letter from America: Washington and the art of compromise

The capitol building in WashingtonAlastair Harper is head of politics at Green Alliance. He’s participating in the US State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Programme on climate change and will be sending dispatches over the next couple of weeks based on his experiences.

Washington is a city that changes startlingly from block to block. Take the Capitol Building, which looms over its surroundings like the younger, stockier brother of St Paul’s Cathedral, reflected in the water landscaped in front with the Washington monument in the distance. Dotted around it are countless police, tourists and lobbyists. You are vividly aware of where you are.

But walk just two blocks south, and you could be in small town America. Handsome but run-down brownstones fill the streets; childrens’ bikes sit rusting in yards. The tourists are replaced by elderly couples driving old Fords down a minor road towards the overpass. In five minutes, we’ve gone from House of Cards to Edward Hopper.

Follow that old couple in the Ford and you come to a huge industrial plant, an odd sight in the centre of the capital of the world’s most powerful country; it sits as close to the Capitol Building as Waterloo Station does to the Houses of Parliament. Two big chimneys reach for the sky. Picnic tables for workers are set up on concrete, next to a wall of pallets. One part of the building is marked ‘cooling area’, but no signs indicate what the building actually does. I walk its full circumference without getting any hints, beyond a police car slowing as it passes me. It’s only when talking to an employee of the Department of State, later that day, that I’m told I have visited the Capitol Power Plant.

A battle for power
This power station dates from 1910, and still keeps America’s leaders warm. Back in 2000, with the plant now just powering heat not electricity, two coal state senators blocked its conversion to a cleaner fuel, providing the State Department employee I spoke to with a nice illustrative anecdote.

For several years, Nancy Pelosi tried to get Republicans to support her plan to ‘green’ the Capitol, a crucial part of which involved getting rid of the coal plant. The plant’s owner, however, promptly increased campaign contributions to key Republicans; the key Republicans duly came to the conclusion that they still needed it. In the end, in 2009, Pelosi gave up seeking consensus and, with Harry Reid, ordered the plant to be switched from coal to gas. As of 2013, it has a plan to go 100 per cent gas, and to start generating electricity for government buildings for the first time since the 1950s.

This small power station – and the symbolism of its change of fuel – occupied the time of the US’s most powerful law makers for years. As political observers in the beltway emphasise to visitors like me, this is not a city that compromises.

The current administration has also given up seeking compromise for its climate plan. But lack of consensus doesn’t necessarily mean that its plan is any weaker. A spokesperson for a US NGO convinced me that unpicking Obama’s climate plan, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) rules that will be its teeth, would be hard. It would require the courts to overrule the idea that carbon emissions will have a negative impact on Americans’ health. And, as they say, that’s not gonna happen.

There will be plenty of bluster when the EPA finalises its rule in a month or two. Oklahoma has already voted to ban the state from implementing the EPA’s rule. One environmental lawyer told me he expects that “within an hour of the rule coming out there’ll be organisations filing litigation.” But beyond the shouting, if a state doesn’t do its own plan, the EPA will do it for them. The Republicans could not have been rubbed up the wrong way more by this horrifically federal, undemocratic, approach. But, by ignoring consensus, Obama has got things done.

A climate deal to ‘inspire, enable and prod’
On the international front, the US is, as one of its climate negotiators put it, going “all in” to get a deal. Anyone following the G7 last week could see that for themselves.  I was told by German and French insiders that the best they had hoped for was recognition of the idea of phasing out fossil fuels. No one expected it to be actually agreed as a goal, until Obama showed up determined to achieve that outcome.

Similarly, the US knows what it wants in Paris with a clarity starkly absent at home from Number 10. Obama and Kerry see the role of a successful deal as being to “inspire, enable and prod” to ensure more domestic action around the world. If the best way of doing that is through a long term goal with five yearly ratchets around a transparent and potentially legal framework, then that’s what they’ll advocate. To no one’s surprise, they prefer politically binding to legally binding, but they are willing to support anything legally enabling that falls short of the deal being a treaty requiring ratification in the US Senate.

The Obama “war on coal” is what the Republicans see themselves as fighting against. In some way it’s just a priori disagreement. Both the Democrats and the Republicans threaten shutdown and sabotage to all legislation for no noticeable strategic reason beyond “if you think this, I have to think the opposite.”

Scepticism is unsustainable for Republicans
Compromise may be a dirty word, but it seems that many Republicans are aware that outright climate scepticism is unsustainable. Emphasising heavily that they were speaking in confidence, one Republican staffer admitted to me that they urgently needed an exit strategy for their climate position and that there had been a huge change in Republican views over the last 16 months. They hate how Obama has over used executive powers to deal with this problem, but they hope to distinguish this from the problem itself. Climate change is a reality to most Republicans, but “the wingnuts are the only ones that get on television.” According to them, a lot of thought is currently put into how to symbolise the view of the GOP on climate in other ways than Inhofe’s snowball. That won’t mean compromise with the Democrats but acknowledging that fighting on a front that involves much of their base rejecting scientific fact is not the best space. Instead, they feel they’d be better ignoring this clash and focusing on, say, healthcare or ISIS. It’s there they might actually be able to win over the public.

Why compromise may not work
There are exceptions, of course. Lisa Murkowski, the Alaskan chair of the Senate Energy Committee is, by Washington standards, a compromiser. She sees climate change as real and her home state as the “canary in the coal mine” for climate impacts. That said, she doesn’t want to shut down the coal mine. Her position is to support as many pipelines as she can get. She doesn’t like the state supporting renewables. She wants the market to deliver the answers, and for low carbon energy to win in the market against fossil fuels. Embarrassed by last year’s government shutdown, she tries to avoid writing legislation that will see the Bill voted down in the House or vetoed by the president. She tries working with the Democrat ranking member in her committee to get things through. Soon she will pushing an energy bill through the Senate and hopes to see it become law.

However, right now in Washington that is a very ambitious position. Outside her committee, the experts aren’t optimistic. They say that if it’s like any of the other bills that the committee has tried to get through she won’t be successful. Any carefully negotiated compromise between the parties within the Committee has been sabotaged with amendments from wreckers or dreamers, designed to either ensure the bill doesn’t have enough votes or will meet with presidential veto (as with the Keystone pipeline). So, compromise may be an art but it seems to be the worst way to go about getting things done today in Washington.

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