The battle playing out among Democrats on Capitol Hill is allegedly between progressives and moderates. Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin are threatening to sink the White House’s proposed $3.5 trillion reconciliation budget by either withdrawing their support or dramatically slashing its scope. New Jersey Congressman Josh Gottheimer, meanwhile, has been trying to speed ahead with a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which, if passed, would have the same result of tanking the reconciliation bill by removing moderates’ incentive to vote for it. Meanwhile, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are being called bomb-throwers for lining up behind the White House’s agenda and for refusing to vote for infrastructure until there’s a deal on reconciliation.
To hear Sinema, Manchin, and Gottheimer tell it, they’re a voice for sober rationality in a party careening toward the extreme left, bravely standing up for the forgotten majorities who want to keep corporate taxes low and spending under control. But what does it mean to be a moderate in the era of the climate crisis?
If anything, the reconciliation bill is dangerously modest. It does nothing to directly limit America’s prolific fossil fuel production and exports. Experts recommend spending roughly $1 trillion per year on climate-related investments for a decade. If passed, the current bill would spend $3.5 trillion total over 10 years, a relatively small portion of which is devoted to adapting to and mitigating climate change. Its trademark climate program is a measly $150 billion Clean Electricity Payment Program. Progressives within and without Congress have fought for much more. CPC members had initially pushed for a $6.5 trillion reconciliation budget, itself far lower than the $16.3 trillion Green New Deal Bernie Sanders pledged while running for the Democratic primary.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report found that changes to the earth’s climate systems—driven mainly by the burning of fossil fuels—are “unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years.” For a two-thirds shot at keeping temperatures below 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, an ambition inscribed in the Paris Agreement, the world can release just 400 billion more tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Last year, burning fossil fuels emitted 34.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide—down dramatically, due to the pandemic, from the record-breaking 43.1 billion tons emitted in 2019. By 2070, 19 percent of the earth’s surface could be too hot for humans to inhabit, sending millions to find new homes in their own countries and in others. Wildfires are already zapping whole towns off the map. Our infrastructure is buckling under the weight of these changes to the physical environment. Much of it—built to transport and burn fossil fuels—is part of the problem. There’s nothing moderate about working to keep this state of affairs in place.
For Gottheimer, the word “moderate” takes on a kind of normative weight, as an attempt pragmatically to split the difference between extremes on the left and right to find solutions in the center. Last week he accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of bowing to a “small far-left faction,” adding that he and other lawmakers “were elected to achieve reasonable, commonsense solutions for the American people—not to obstruct from the far wings.”
It’d be difficult to call Joe Biden, whose full agenda Gottheimer has been attempting to block, the member of a “small far-left faction.” If anyone’s earned the title of moderate, it’s him. And actual voters seem to like the $3.5 trillion package a lot. In late August, polling from Data for Progress found that 65 percent of Arizona voters support the package, including 95 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents or third-party voters. Strong majorities also support White House proposals to pay for the plan by raising the corporate tax rate (66 percent) and raising income taxes on the wealthy (75 percent), ideas that are among Sinema’s main sticking points in negotiations. A July poll, also from Data for Progress, found that 57 percent of West Virginia voters—including 55 percent of independent or third-party voters—support transitioning to a 100 percent clean electricity system by 2035. There’s broad support nationally for climate provisions in the reconciliation bill that Manchin has explicitly said he’d like to gut. Fifty-four percent of likely voters, for instance, support phasing out government subsidies for coal, oil, and gas.
The self-styled moderates blocking reconciliation from moving forward are mostly furthering the right-wing agenda of their corporate donors, not constituents. Since 2017, Manchin has been the top congressional recipient of contributions from coal-mining and oil and gas companies. Sinema is a favorite of payday lenders and airlines. As Gottheimer told donors to the dark-money group No Labels, in a recording obtained by The Intercept, he was working for them. When it looked certain he’d get his way—he told CNN he was “1,000 percent” sure the infrastructure bill would pass on its own—Gottheimer told the donors, “You should feel so proud, I can’t explain to you, this is the culmination of all your work.… This would not have happened but for what you’ve built.” Triumphantly, Oregon Representative Kurt Schrader advised the same Zoom gathering not to “get your hopes up that we’re going to spend trillions more of our kids’ and grandkids’ money.”
In a world already irreversibly altered by rising temperatures, there’s no moderate way forward. Back in 2014—when there were tens of billions fewer tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—climate scientist Kevin Anderson argued that the planet faced “an unavoidably radical future. We either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions.” Progressives want the latter, or at least the closest thing to it Congress is likely to produce in the next few months. Sinema, Manchin, Gottheimer, and their ilk are doing everything they can to make the former path a reality. No one should call them moderates, or even centrists. They’re extremists. If they have their way, they’re going to get a lot of people killed.