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Politics

Republicans Might Have Just ‘Walked the Plank’ Over Climate Jobs

It's not 2009 anymore.

An elephant walking the plank.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Twenty-six House Republicans may have just put big green targets on their own backs.

Last month, the House passed a bill that would have raised the debt ceiling while also repealing most of the tax credits for clean energy projects enacted in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act. That provision was a poison pill for President Biden and congressional Democrats, and was jettisoned in the final deal between the White House and Congress to lift the debt limit.

But it also opened up a number of Republicans to political attacks for voting to jeopardize green jobs in their own districts. It’s a sign of just how far climate politics have shifted, in part due to the political strategy underlying Green Bidenomics.

This is a new dynamic. Back in 2009, House Democrats spent months laboring over major climate legislation. They ultimately narrowly passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act (also known as “Waxman-Markey”), a cap-and-trade program to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But despite a Democratic supermajority in the Senate, the bill was dead-on-arrival in the upper chamber, which never even took it up for a vote.

The House vote became a massive political albatross for Democrats in the 2010 midterm election — vulnerable members had “walk[ed] the plank,” as former Rep. Tom Periello put it. Republicans wielded Waxman-Markey as a cudgel, branding the shelved climate plan a “cap-and-tax” job killer — a lethal hit in an extremely weak post-Great Recession economy. Ultimately, more than two dozen Democrats who voted in favor of the cap-and-trade bill were wiped out that November as Republicans took back the House.

Badly burned, Democrats shifted course when they next had the opportunity to craft climate legislation. Where Waxman-Markey aimed to fight climate change by penalizing emissions, Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act does so by subsidizing renewables. It largely steered clear of carbon taxes, instead centering gigantic subsidy carrots that “crowd in” private sector investment for clean energy development.

The IRA also embraced green industrial strategy, ensuring that as much of the clean energy supply chain as possible is produced at home — battery manufacturers, EV plants, and the like. That has drastically shifted the politics: while traditional cap-and-trade emissions reductions plans were tarred as job killers, green Bidenomics is a clear job creator. Since the IRA was enacted, clean energy companies have already added 100,000 new jobs. Another 46 new clean energy manufacturing facilities have been announced, creating upwards of 18,000 anticipated jobs. Those numbers will only grow over the coming years.

Aligning that kind of economic muscle with the climate change fight has made the IRA politically resilient. It has left even right-wing agitators like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene – in whose district the solar company QCells is investing $2.5 billion to create 2,500 jobs – tying themselves in knots to simultaneously cheer new in-district investment while voicing opposition to the federal incentives behind it.

It’s also why Republicans backed down during debt ceiling negotiations and let the clean energy tax credits survive. But not before the far-right House Freedom Caucus forced all of them to take a toxic vote against green jobs. As CNN reported, “More than two dozen House Republicans who recently welcomed multi-million-dollar clean energy manufacturing investments in their districts voted … to repeal the tax incentives that stimulated those very same projects.”

That could come back to haunt some of those Republicans, especially the frontline “majority makers” who won seats in districts that Biden carried. For instance, freshman Representative Marc Molinaro in New York’s 19th congressional district eked out a 2-point win in a district that Biden carried by nearly 5 points. Molinaro voted for the repeal bill even though the IRA is bringing a new long-duration battery plant from Zinc8 Energy Solutions — and 500 jobs for his constituents — to his district.

Molinaro is already feeling the heat from that vote. He’s facing a potential rematch against his 2022 opponent, Democrat Josh Riley. And in an op-ed, Riley called Molinaro’s vote a “gut punch to folks who have experienced the ups-and-downs in our local economy.” Under the IRA, Riley said, upstate New York could grow into a “Valley of Opportunity where folks can earn a place in the Middle Class manufacturing the things we need to save the planet.” Yet their own member of Congress cast a vote to quash that growth: “[I]nstead of supporting those investments,” Riley wrote, “Molinaro called them a ‘bad idea,’ and he derided them as ‘reckless spending.’”

More Republicans could find themselves on the hot seat. Others who won close races or represent Biden-voting districts — like Lauren Boebert of Colorado (whose district will be home to “the world’s largest manufacturing plant for wind turbine towers”) and Juan Ciscomani of Arizona — could soon hear from opponents and voters about why they tried to undermine investments in their communities.

It’s never good politics to cast a vote that might take jobs away from your constituents. Fairly or not, that was the hit on Democrats who tried to take climate action in 2009. But the shoe is on the other foot now, and the political albatross is around those who flirted with undoing the biggest climate law the United States has ever passed. Green Bidenomics is good political economy, and it’s rapidly shifting the terms of debate in America.

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Joel Dodge profile image

Joel Dodge

Joel Dodge is an attorney, policy advisor, and writer. His writing on policy and politics has appeared in numerous publications, and he has advised several candidates for office on policy. Follow him on Twitter

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