House Democrats assumed the majority in the 116th Congress, with Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) as the new chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and with Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), the former chairman, leading Republicans as ranking member.
Chairman Pallone has said he intends to put forward legislative proposals on renewable energy, drinking water, cybersecurity, broadband access, and climate change with two days of hearings on climate change already planned for early 2019. He will also use the chairmanship to conduct oversight of the Trump administration, particularly with regard to energy and environmental deregulatory efforts.
Democrats have also created a new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which does not have legislative jurisdiction but does have the authority to investigate, study, make findings, and develop recommendations on policies, strategies, and innovations regarding climate change. The new select committee is chaired by Rep. Nancy Castor (D-FL).
With divided government, any successful progressive energy and climate change agenda in the House risks hitting a roadblock in the Republican-controlled Senate. However, shining a light on these issues with hearings and oversight can be a powerful tool and we expect it to be used mightily. Beyond that, House Democrats are hopeful that by drawing attention to energy and climate change issues they can generate enough bipartisan spirit to advance legislation. They will also use their majority to make an impact on energy and climate policy through the appropriations process by directing federal dollars toward efforts that support a more progressive approach.
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) will remain as chair of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee in the new Congress, while the former ranking member, Sen. Cantwell (D-WA), has given up that post to become the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee – an opportunity that opened up with the defeat of the former Commerce Committee ranking member, Sen. Nelson (D-FL), in the November elections. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has been selected to lead Democrats as ranking member of the committee, overcoming opposition from progressives who object to his views on energy policy, especially his past support for the coal industry.
Chairman Murkowski and Ranking Member Cantwell fought throughout the 115th Congress to secure passage of their comprehensive bipartisan energy bill, the Energy and Natural Resources Act, commonly referred to as the “Murkowski-Cantwell bill,” but were unsuccessful in bringing the measure to the Senate floor. They had also introduced the bill in the 114th Congress and secured Senate passage but the legislation was not approved by the House. The legislation has 11 titles: Efficiency, Infrastructure, Supply, Accountability, Conservation, Federal Land Management, National Park System Management, Sportsmen’s Access, Water Infrastructure, Natural Hazards, and Indian Energy. We do not expect a reintroduction of the measure, particularly with Sen. Cantwell’s move to the Commerce Committee, but the bill does offer some insight into the priorities Sen. Murkowski will pursue in the 116th Congress. In lieu of a comprehensive energy bill, a more likely scenario is that we see the committee seeking to move smaller pieces of energy legislation.
Also worth noting is that Sen. Murkowski also chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for the Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency, and other related agencies, and has said that she is in favor of bringing back earmarks in the 116th Congress.