U.S. capitol dome

In the November 2018 midterm elections, Democrats won the U.S. House of Representatives popular vote by a margin of about 8.6 percent and gained 40 seats in that chamber. For perspective, President Obama won his convincing 2008 and 2012 elections by 7.2 percent and 3.9 percent, respectively. While Republicans increased their Senate hold in 2018 by two seats and strengthened their majority control, they won races only in states that had voted for Donald Trump for President in 2016, and Republican Senate candidates lost races in eight states that Trump had won.

It was a decisive “Blue Wave” election, and when asked what they considered the most important issue in exit polls, 41 percent of voters listed health care, and three-quarters of those voted for Democrats. That was the issue Democrats campaigned most heavily on in 2018, and it helped sweep them back into power in the House. And some eerie similarities are emerging between health care and climate change in the American political landscape.

Republicans have rejected compromise

When the Obama administration took office in 2009, its three highest priorities were passing a stimulus package to pull America out of the Great Recession, implementing health care reform, and tackling climate change. President Obama set out to negotiate with congressional Republicans on all three.

For example, Obama agreed to a much smaller stimulus than he earlier had wanted, and one that was significantly cheaper than the tax cut Republicans passed in 2017 during strong economic conditions.

On health care, Democrats – albeit often with reluctance and only in the face of insurmountable opposition – cast aside their preference for universal health care or even a public option. They lent support instead to a more conservative policy based on “Romneycare,” named after 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s approach in Massachusetts. (Romney in November was elected to the U.S. Senate from Utah.) Despite Democrats’ efforts to seek a health care compromise, no Senate Republicans voted for the legislation, and congressional Republicans subsequently tried 70 times to repeal, modify or otherwise curb the Affordable Care Act.

With that history, many Democrats appear to have grown tired of trying to protect Obamacare as it now stands, and party leaders are lending support to some version of Medicare-for-all.

In short, Republican lawmakers rejected a conservative health care policy solution, and they have been unable to come up with and pass a preferred alternative. Their constituents’ concerns over health care cost many congressional Republicans in the 2018 elections. And now they see an incoming Democratic majority in the House, come January 3, embracing a more liberal government-based policy approach over the more market-based compromise solution.

Health care and climate similarities

The similarities between health care and climate policymaking are striking. In 2009, House Democrats also had chosen to advance a compromise climate policy solution in cap-and-trade. It was an approach favored at that time by another recent Republican presidential candidate – in this case, 2008 nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ). And cap-and-trade too, in the late-1980s, was originally a conservative invention, championed by then-President George H.W. Bush to tackle the problem of acid rain.

Looking ahead to new Congress: A lot of climate change/health care legislation parallels. Click To Tweet

But once again, the compromise proposal faced overwhelming opposition from Republican lawmakers. Just eight of 178 Republicans voted in favor of the cap-and-trade bill that House Democrats passed, and the issue was never brought up for a vote on the Senate floor for fear of a Republican filibuster.

On climate change, Republicans have another chance

As with health care, many liberals appear tired of pursuing compromise policy solutions on climate change only to be rewarded with what they see as obstruction from Republican lawmakers. Many Democrats are now instead championing a “Green New Deal”: details have yet to be fleshed out, but it would involve a vast government intervention in support of green technologies and would thus be far less compatible with conservative, libertarian, or “free-market” principles.

And, again, as with health care, many Democrats see climate change as a winning issue for them. According to the latest “Climate Change in the American Mind” survey data from Yale and George Mason, 62 percent of Americans are worried about climate change, up from 51 percent five years ago. This number even includes 55 percent of liberal/moderate Republicans. As temperatures continue to rise and as climate impacts like California’s record wildfires grow yet more severe, we can expect voters to increasingly demand policy solutions. In a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, 15 percent of Democrats said climate change should be the new Congress’ top priority, statistically tied for second with the economy and gun control, behind only – you guessed it – health care.

The GOP is thus left with two options. Republicans can continue to cede the issue to Democrats, possibly hurting their election chances and leading to growing support for a more activist ultimate policy solution; or they can throw their support behind free market, small government policy solutions.

A few House Republicans, in the days immediately after the November election “wave,” have chosen the latter path. Representatives Francis Rooney (R-FL), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and Dave Trott (R-MI) have co-sponsored a revenue-neutral carbon tax bill with Democrats Ted Deutch (D-FL), Charlie Crist (D-FL), John Delaney (D-MD), and Anna Eshoo (D-CA). The legislation mirrors the fee-and-dividend proposal by the grassroots organization Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

It would implement an aggressively rising carbon tax with 100 percent of the revenue returned to Americans via monthly dividend checks. The bill would prohibit EPA carbon pollution regulations as long as strict emissions reductions targets are met, which should please conservatives. The equal distribution of revenue rebates to all individuals is a progressive tax policy that would protect low-income households from higher energy bills, which should please liberals. A 2014 study found that under such a policy, American carbon pollution would fall by 33 percent after only 10 years and by 52 percent after 20 years, while having a modestly beneficial impact on the economy.

Proponents defend it as a smart, effective, compromise climate change solution.

Is compromise still possible?

In the new session of Congress, House Democrats say they will establish a special committee focused on climate change. While comprehensive climate legislation is extremely unlikely to become law at least over the next two years, Democrats will be deciding which policy they may want to advance if they’re able to retake the Senate and White House in 2020 or thereafter.

Policymakers should contemplate the recent “Yellow Vest” French protests against the country’s rising fuel tax. While the concept of a carbon tax is popular, higher energy costs are not, and losing public support can doom any policy. A 2018 study in Nature Climate Change examined how to design a popular carbon tax. The authors have noted that “Budget-neutral strategies such as uniform transfers or tax cuts are more appropriate in contexts of prevalent centre-right world views, low-trust governments and tax aversion” – characteristics that describe the United States.

Currently, a Green New Deal and revenue-neutral carbon tax are the two leading U.S. climate policy legislative contenders. Both are popular – a recent poll found 68 percent of voters support a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and 76 percent support a carbon tax if the revenue were invested in renewable energy, as under a Green New Deal.

That said, given the stance of most Republican lawmakers on climate change (for example, see their reactions to the most recent National Climate Assessment), a policy compromise in this area seems highly unlikely during the remainder of a Trump administration and so long as Mitch McConnell (R-KY) remains Senate Majority Leader with control over what bills do and do not get as far as a floor vote.

With continued down-the-line Republican refusals to engage in the climate policy debate – let alone to accept the broad scientific community assessments – the arch of climate change legislation may continue to mirror that of health care.

Seizing on what they view as a popular and important issue, Democrats may then decide, as they eventually did with the Affordable Care Act, to forego compromise and instead advance a more aggressive government-based liberal policy likely to be far more intrusive on the economy than a market-based compromise solution.

Republican Party leaders have choices to make.

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