Science Policy & Funding News

Waxman Maintains Hope for Climate Change Legislation

Former congressman Henry Waxman, who led efforts on sweeping environmental initiatives, is realistic about the obstacles presented by congressional Republicans and the Trump administration.


“The biggest problem we face on climate is not that we need to come up with better ideas,” according to former U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman. “What we need is Republicans who will negotiate in good faith.”

Waxman, a California Democrat who served in Congress for 4 decades as a leader on environmental and other issues, said at a 10 June forum in Washington, D.C., that although congressional Republicans and the Trump administration present significant obstacles, he is hopeful about action on climate change.

If some Republicans would be willing to seriously negotiate about climate change, “it wouldn’t be hard to work out the problems,” said Waxman. “It would take time. It would take trade-offs. But we could get somewhere.”

Waxman, who retired from Congress in 2015, had a prolific legislative career that included leadership on improving the Clean Air Act and on health care, among other issues. The 10 June forum about lessons from the Clean Air Act was sponsored by Resources for the Future and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and also included other experts who focused on the successes and failures of the Clean Air Act.

The former congressman, who currently chairs Waxman Strategies, a Washington, D.C.–based public affairs and strategic communications firm, recalled that the successful 1990 reauthorization of the Clean Air Act benefited from a lot of horse trading with Republicans as well as with Democrats who represented states dependent on coal.

Lack of Republican Support for Earlier Climate Legislation

However, at the forum, Waxman also recalled his disappointment about the American Clean Energy and Security Act, commonly referred to as the Waxman-Markey bill. That legislation, which was introduced 10 years ago when Waxman was chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) was chairman of its Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, passed in the House but died in the Senate. The bill would have established a nationwide greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system with goals to reduce those emissions while also addressing energy efficiency and other issues.

“We said to a lot of our colleagues that there is Republican support because so many of these industry groups were supporting it,” Waxman said. However, he added, that didn’t make any difference because Republicans had decided that they didn’t want to give then President Barack Obama a victory on anything.

“They united against [Obama’s] stimulus bill even though [former] President George W. Bush had a stimulus bill when the economy went down. They wouldn’t support the Affordable Care Act [ACA]. They wouldn’t support the ability to deal with climate change. They were just against everything,” Waxman said. “When Republicans were against everything, we had to do it by Democratic votes, which made it impossible when we lost one vote, the 60th vote in the Senate.”

Waxman recalled hoping that the Senate would just pass something so that a bill could go into conference to work out any differences between a House and Senate bill. However, the legislation never made it through the Senate.

“The circumstances were that while we passed the climate change bill in the House, we thought the Senate would pass the ACA early and then we’d have the rest of the time to do the climate bill,” Waxman said. “But the Senate couldn’t pass the ACA until Christmas Eve, 2009, and it left us with no time to do anything on the climate bill.”

White House Hurdle

Waxman said that President Donald Trump, whom he called “so strange,” is a major hurdle for enacting new climate legislation.

“The Republicans in Congress are refusing to stand up to him. They’re doing it very, very reluctantly,” Waxman said. “I would be hard put to imagine that if he were reelected and if the Republicans decide that he’s still their leader because he got reelected, that we are going to get much progress. But I’m hopeful that he will get replaced.”

However, even if Trump is defeated in the 2020 presidential election, Waxman cautioned that it won’t be smooth sailing to pass strong legislation. “We’ll have a hard job, but it will tear down the biggest obstacle that we have right now,” he said. Trump “has articulated, and nobody has corrected him, that science doesn’t matter.”

Waxman said that Trump believes that “this is just a plot from China when they talk about climate change.”

However, Waxman said that he sees changes on the horizon in public opinion and politics. “Now when you watch the nightly news, almost every night they talk about a climate disaster, and they talk about climate change as leading to these disasters,” he said, comparing current television newscasts to earlier newscasts that didn’t necessarily make that connection.

“The public opinion is clearly changing, and that is going to have an impact on their representatives of both political parties and on the courts,” he said. “The key is changing the political dynamic, and until that happens all the good and creative ideas in the world won’t make much of a difference.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Waxman maintains hope for climate change legislation, Eos, 100, Published on 11 June 2019.
Text © 2019. AGU. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.