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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Democrats: Party in Power or Powerful Party?

The House voted yesterday and passed the Comprehensive American Energy Security and Consumer Protection Act. The bill is truly an "all of the above" set of solutions, including:

  • Royalty reform to ensure that oil companies are paying for the land that they lease from the government

  • Tax subsidy repeals on the "big five" oil companies, along with closing other loopholes to make sure oil companies are paying their fair share

  • Releasing almost 10 percent of the strategic petroleum reserve to help drive down gas prices at the pump

  • Extended and expanded tax incentives for renewable electricity and energy generation, energy efficient homes, buildings and appliances, and incentives for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles

  • Taking royalties from decade old drilling leases and invest in clean energy and energy efficiency technologies

  • A mandate for utilities to be providing 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020

  • And, the kicker: expresses the sense of congress that the Renewable Fuel Standard should ensure that every region can be a producer of cellulosic biofuels from a vast array of feedstocks.

The bill passed 239-189, picking up just fifteen Republican votes while losing thirteen Democrats. However, the likelihood of this bill turning into law is slim, as it has to make it through the senate, which, with the threat of a Republican filibuster, looks almost impossible. The chances of a bill that shifts oil subsidies passing the senate without a filibuster-proof Democratic super-majority (ie 60 Democrats) is, by my rough estimate, a billion to one.

This is not to say that the passage of this bill was not a success in the eyes of House Democrats. After being hammered all summer over refusing to pass expanded drilling provisions of provide relief at the pump, the Democratic caucus in Congress can now say, with honesty, that they voted for an "all of the above" energy solution package, and that the Republicans were the party standing in the way on drilling.

This is actually a remarkable tactical victory for Democrats, who beat the Republicans at their own game. But it is just that: a tactical victory in a political battle in which the Republicans set all the conditions. Democrats have been in control of the House for two years, but they are still struggling for tactical victories and playing Republican games. If Democrats want to not only be the party in power but a powerful party, they need to shift the Congressional political landscape with not tactical, but strategic victories.

The Dems need to proactively choose the battles that they will fight with Republicans instead of constantly reacting to Republican power plays. They need to win a battle that they start, a battle that they choose--a battle in which they represent the will of the electorate. It is these sorts of political victories that will have Democrats building political capital instead of preserving it, setting and owning the agenda instead of reacting to it.

The best place for Democrats to take ownership of the political process is energy. Providing a real vision for new energy to power America will put the Democrats on the offensive, creating a narrative of proactive Democratic solutions to problems of economy and national security. The best way for the Democrats to establish credibility as leaders of the country and stewards of our economy would be a bold push for new American energy. And until the Democrats are setting the terms, they will continue to play catch-up with Republicans and to scramble for a tactical victory.

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