Health Care Lessons for Energy

Last night's speech by President Obama in support of health care legislation, fiery yet thoughtful, and designed, as E.J. Dionne remarks today, to seize the autumn after a summer dominated by his opponents, increases the chances of passage of a health care bill this year.  By engaging directly and forcefully with Congress and the American people, last night the President injected himself into a debate including all of its details that until now he has largely tried to steer clear of.  The strongest parts of the speech were those where steeped in detail he argued for the overall package on the basis of its component parts.  The speech was significant not only for the prospects of health care legislation this year, but also for the President's entire agenda, including the next large legislative item on tap: energy and climate change legislation.

As with health care legislation, the President's strategy on energy and climate has been to set broad goals and encourage Congress to tackle the details.  As a former Senator himself, it is not surprising that he would have confidence in the ability of Congress to write law.  In the case of climate, the House did pass a bill this year and though the cap and trade component was weakened in drafting, the bill contains a meaningful Renewable Electricity Standard and other provisions critical to stimulating the growth of renewable electricity. 

While that strategy worked in the House, the Senate chose to postpone action this summer until after healthcare.  One rationale for postponement was to use the momentum created by health care to move energy as well.  Now, however, it appears less likely that health care will grease the skids for energy legislation.  Instead, the mobilization of Republicans against health care may carry over to energy.  Nonetheless, the health care debate suggests some important lessons for moving energy legislation.

The first lesson is that moving a bill--particularly one with a climate change component--is likely to require direct presidential engagement.  Currently the Administration does not have positions on many of the specifics of the energy bill.  It should develop positions and thorough arguments to back them up.  Absent direct engagement, it will be to easy for opponents of the legislation to suggest postponement.  While health care is the topic now at the top of the agenda, the Administration should begin laying the groundwork now for engagement when energy comes up later in the fall.

Second, the Administration has to decide whether to pursue a partisan or non partisan strategy.  Either way, it is critical that the Administration win over moderate Democrats.  Without them, it cannot pursue a partisan strategy.  And without them even a non partisan strategy becomes that much more difficult.  This too will require direct presidential engagement to determine which Senators require which changes to the law to feel comfortable supporting the overall package.  The key argument to be made to moderate Democrats is the economic one: that the US needs to take leadership in developing new energy technologies lest leadership of this vital sector pass to other countries.  The second most important argument is energy security.  What could be more absurd, after all, than fighting two wars in the Middle East and sparring with Iran over politics, while continuing to import large quantities of oil from that region.  The time to begin reaching out to the Democratic moderates is now.

Many commentators have correclty observed that the current Administration, at times seems to have learned too well the lessons of the early Clinton years of not trying to be overly prescriptive with respect to legislation.  However, the opposite is also true: the Administration cannot stay out of the fray.

To pass energy legislation as with health care, the Administration will need to engage and, yes, sweat the details.