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The Political Calculus that Saved Biden’s Climate Law

The drafters of the IRA seem to have hit on the same strategy that has made America’s defense budget so impervious to cuts: Pork.

President Biden and Kevin McCarthy.
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Here is a good rule for politicians: Bringing home the bacon is a good thing.

Taking a pass on government-funded projects that bring millions or billions of dollars to your district, along with great new jobs for your constituents? That’s not so good.

Those two related truisms might explain why the climate-friendly provisions of last year’s Inflation Reduction Act seem to have largely escaped grievous cuts in the debt ceiling deal announced Saturday night by President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

While nothing is over until it’s over — and some of McCarthy’s fellow conservatives are blanching at the deal he made — there is reason to believe good old-fashioned pork-barrel spending might have saved the Biden administration’s clean energy agenda from a terrible wound.

But it was a close thing.

Republicans have definitely had their eye on the IRA during the debt ceiling fight. The law included some $369 billion in spending on climate and renewable energy policies. But in April, the GOP-led House passed a bill that would’ve repealed some of those provisions — stuff like tax credits for new and used electric vehicles, along with incentives for building solar panels and other clean energy infrastructure projects.

Those cuts didn’t survive negotiations. "House Republicans had fought for repealing some of the clean energy tax credits approved by Democrats last year, as well as stopping the White House’s plan to cancel student loan debt,” The Washington Post reports. “The Biden administration objected strongly to those proposals, and they fell out of the final deal."

So what happened?

A guess: Yes, Republicans like to grumble about “climate alarmism,” rail against private-sector “environmental, social and governance,” and generally make a bogeyman of the Green New Deal. But they are undeniably benefiting in a big way from the IRA’s climate and energy investments in their own districts.

And nobody likes to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

As Politico pointed out in January, Republican members of Congress are among the IRA’s big political winners: Two-thirds of the clean energy projects announced since the law passed — things like battery and electric vehicle plants — have been located in GOP districts.

Which was kind of funny, because every House Republican voted against the law.

“Just because you vote against a bill doesn’t mean the entire bill is a bad bill,” explained Rep. Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican.

Maybe. It’s pretty easy — and fairly common — for members of Congress to vote against a bill, see it pass, only to pivot and take credit for the goodies that suddenly appear. “Voting no and taking the dough” has a long, rich history in American politics. Most voters never notice the hypocrisy.

They do notice, though, when the goodies go away.

Like, say, when that promised battery plant that was going to bring hundreds of new jobs to town suddenly doesn’t pan out.

That was the situation Republicans found themselves in heading into negotiations over the debt ceiling. It’s one thing to rail against “government spending” in the abstract — and another thing entirely to oppose specific spending that your own voters are already enjoying or counting on.

House Republicans “are ready to kill new, good paying jobs coming to their own districts to play politics,” the advocacy group Climate Power lamented last month.

McCarthy, it seems, didn’t want to deal with the grief — or the campaign ads that were surely coming against the more vulnerable members of his caucus. Who could blame him?

All of this means that the sheer ambition and size of the Inflation Reduction Act, while still falling short of what the world needs to avert a climate emergency, probably saved it from the GOP’s chopping block. We’ve come a long way from the days when then-President Obama touted the economic value of green jobs — and then gave the nation small-bore “weatherization” projects that were arguably successful but also pretty easy not to notice if you looked around your own community.

The “battery belt” taking shape across the southeastern U.S., on the other hand, is pretty hard to miss. It is also represented by a lot of congressional Republicans.

This has implications for future climate fights. The drafters of the IRA seem to have hit on the same strategy that has made America’s defense budget so impervious to cuts: They’ve spread the wealth.

Few politicians want to look unpatriotic by voting against military spending, of course, but it doesn’t hurt that the defense industry — all those contractors and subcontractors, countless companies and workers — is spread out across every state and congressional district. Vote for defense cuts and you’re voting against your constituents’ jobs.

Now the same may be true of the green energy industry. Republicans don’t have to believe in climate change, and they can argue for fiscal austerity all they want. The debt ceiling deal, though, suggests that conservative members of Congress have one priority even higher than those ideals: Their own hides. The climate may benefit.

Joel Mathis

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association. Read More

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Boston’s Big Dig Was Secretly Great

A podcast by GBH News reporter Ian Coss gives this notorious project a long-overdue reappraisal. Bonus: The show comes with lessons for climate infrastructure projects of the future.

Boston being dug by a backhoe.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

If you’ve lived in Massachusetts at any point in the last 50 years, you’ve heard of the Big Dig. It’s infamous — a tunnel project that was supposed to bury an elevated highway in Boston to the tune of $2 billion that eventually ballooned in cost to $15 billion and took a quarter of a century to finish.

The Big Dig was more than just a highway project, though. It was a monumental effort that Ian Coss, a reporter at GBH News, calls a “renovation of downtown Boston.” The project built tunnels and bridges, yes, but it also created parks, public spaces, and mass transit options that transformed the city. In a nine-episode podcast series appropriately called The Big Dig, Coss dives into the long, complicated history of the project, making a case for why the Big Dig was so much more than the boondoggle people think it was.

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