The Speaker’s Lobby: Murder on the Capitol Hill Express

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

12 May 2009


There are few things more intriguing in literature than a good “whodunit?”


The same can be said in politics. Especially when trying to determine who euthanized a controversial piece of legislation.


A good example of this came in 1994. Congressional Republicans were unified in opposing President Clinton’s massive 1,300 hundred page health care reform overhaul.

For months, former Sen. Bob Packwood (R-OR), the top GOPer on the Senate Finance Committee, maneuvered to torpedo the legislation. Packwood and his fellow Republicans ultimately got their way.


“We’ve killed health care reform,” Packwood boasted. “Now we’ve got to make sure our fingerprints are not on it.”


Agatha Christie would have been proud.


If Republicans have their way, they’re about to whack another piece of legislation. But no need for Detectives Stabler and Benson from SVU on this one. That’s because if they’re successful, the GOP will happily make a full confession.


The Republicans have put out a hit on energy and climate change legislation called “cap and trade.” The package would curtail greenhouse gasses by setting limits on what pollutants can be discharged. The government would then hold an auction for companies to compete to emit other pollutants. And companies could trade for pollution permits.


House Democrats appear to be inching closer to a compromise. But there’s concern the bill could dramatically impact the nation’s energy bills. Coal-powered utilities in the Midwest are bracing for spikes. Industry is worried, too, as these new restrictions could drive up manufacturing costs. Even ranchers and dairy farmers could face increased fees by having to pay what some are dubbing a “cow tax.” Cows emit methane which is one gas that the Environmental Protection Agency intends to target.


But the legislation aims to mitigate higher energy costs by providing consumers rebates

from revenue generated by the auction of permits.


The House Energy and Commerce Committee could begin writing the bill during a series of sessions next week.


It’s a cyclical process in Washington. An agenda item so broad in scope hits the stage every few years. The political sides and interest groups burrow in. And soon TV ads hit the screen soothsaying nothing short of Armageddon if that given proposal is enacted into law.


That’s what’s happening with cap and trade. And just as they did in the 1994 Clinton health care tangle, Republicans are again in lockstep opposition to a major Democratic proposal.


At the time, Bob Packwood wanted to create a mystery so no one really knew who killed the health care bill. Packwood’s approach was straight out of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” The murder weapon was passed around so everyone had culpable deniability.


But there’s a wrinkle this time. Sure, Republicans want to kill the bill. But they’re all clamoring to make sure their fingerprints are discovered on the knife.


Call it “Murder on the Capitol Hill Express.”


For weeks, Republicans have ginned up a tsunami of opposition to the climate change bill. They’ve deployed a multi-pronged approach. To some groups, Republicans have simply argued that it’s a global warming bill and that global warming doesn’t exist.  In other quarters, Republicans touted economic arguments. The GOP has raged for weeks about an MIT study projecting a $3,000 annual increase in energy costs for families should Democrats adopt the plan. MIT’s John Reilly authored the study. He now contests the GOP claims and questions political use of his survey.


But here’s the problem: as long as there’s no bill, there’s no price tag. Nothing can exist in a political vacuum. So with the measure still on the legislative assembly line, Republicans try to invoke fear with the $3,000 figure.


There are also questions about whether the permits are “fees” or “taxes.” And if energy prices do climb, a lot of economists will argue that’s a de facto tax increase. Republicans seized on that, too. In a FOX interview, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the leading Republican on the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, consistently referred to Cap and Trade as “Cap and Tax.” This marks an effort to play to the GOP’s anti-tax base and present the plan as a veiled tax hike.


Then, there is the GOP ground game.


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has deemed the climate change bill her “flagship issue.” So that’s why House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN) and others are trying to divide support for the package on an ideological and regional basis.


“It is a declaration of economic war on the Midwest by liberals on Capitol Hill,” thundered Pence.


Pence’s effort resonates not only with core Republicans, but with conservative Democrats and independents who have bolted the GOP the last two election cycles. First, those voters are suspect of liberals like Pelosi. They’re also skeptical about the two liberal authors of the plan: Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming Chairman Ed Markey (D-MA). Then there are the geographical concerns. Lawmakers fret that the legislation could harm the Midwest because of manufacturing ties and a reliance on coal-fired power plants. Pence’s line has potential to give many voters pause. And that’s one reason why moderate Democrats like Reps. Zack Space (D-OH) and even Jason Altmire (D-PA) are dubious about backing the Cap and Trade bill.


But while Republicans are the most vocal about possible perils with this legislation, its opposition from some Democrats that could ultimately toll its death knell.

In “Murder on the Orient Express,” Agatha Christie’s fabled Belgian detective Hercule Poirot wrestles with identifying the killer. Poirot discovers that the victim was stabbed 12 times. Some of the wounds appear to come from someone who is left-handed. Others, from someone who is right-handed. A few of the wounds are glancing blows. Others are deep cuts.

With cap and trade, the wounds are coming from both the left and the right. And unquestionably, the GOP is delivering the deepest gashes. But House Democratic leaders know this bill needs backing from moderates and conservatives in their caucus. And if they can’t garner that support, the bill could die.

If that happens, detective Poirot could face quite a conundrum in his investigation.

It will be obvious that the most violent slashes to the cap and trade bill came from Republicans. But Poirot will need an autopsy to show that it was moderate and conservative Democrats who were the ultimate cap and trade assassins.

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.