Paging Edward Gibbon: The Imperial Dysfunction Chronicles

By James Fallows

HarrisPhoto.jpgReady to feel just that little bit more depressed about how a (fundamentally rich, resilient, well-situated, self-renewing) country can fritter away its prospects? I give you H.R. 2354, the Energy and Water Funding Bill for 2012 that the House of Representatives passed last week. Its story features the two gentlemen shown here -- Rep. Andy Harris, of Maryland (right) and Rep. Brad Sherman of California (below).

The responsible authorities thought the bill constituted good news. According to the Appropriations Committee's site, emphasis added:

>>House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers applauded the House for passing the bill:
"This bill is proof that we can make common-sense spending reductions without damaging or impairing the programs that help keep our country safe and our citizens at work....," Chairman Rogers said.

Energy and Water Development Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen also welcomed House passage:
"The House should be proud of this bill, which protects our national security and American competitiveness and innovation and sharpens oversight of the Department of Energy and the agencies under our jurisdiction..." Frelinghuysen said.<<

BradSherman.jpgAnd what is in this exemplar of good government for a frugal age? One that eliminates, in an amazingly know-nothing way, some of the most promising U.S. measures for dealing with climate change.

In a cover story last year, I argued that the world's prospects in containing climate change largely depended on whether the two largest energy-consumers, the U.S. and China, could together find ways to use coal in "cleaner" ways. Like it or not, they were both destined to keep burning coal for the foreseeable future. (Go to the piece for details and argument.) Therefore it mattered to everyone everywhere that their government agencies, universities, national laboratories, and private companies were collaborating on better, faster ways to capture, sequester, and in other ways deal with CO2 from coal-fired plants.

Part of the piece described the surprisingly close interaction between US and Chinese institutions on this score. And I said that the main advantage on the Chinese side is that they were able to commit to these projects in the long run, which among other benefits would give their companies the lead in future technologies.

Which brings us back to HR 2354. It zeroes out or restricts a number of the programs I was describing, including the new US-Chinese Clean Energy Research Center.

It's even a little more benighted than that, in charmingly bipartisan style. Among the amendments the House considered before passage were those from Sherman and Harris, both of them successful. From Sherman -- a Democrat who has represented the San Fernando Valley since the late 1990s -- this one, as described on the Appropriations Committee site:

>>Sherman (D-CA) The amendment prohibits funding for DoE [Department of Energy] International Programs in China. The amendment was adopted on a voice vote.<<

And then, just to be sure, this one from Harris, a first-term Republican from Maryland's Eastern Shore:

>> Harris (R-MD) The amendment prohibits funding for the International Program within the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy account while preserving funding for U.S-Israel energy cooperation. The amendment passed on a vote of 326-185. [mainly party-line]*<<

So, the Democrat makes sure the U.S. doesn't do clean energy research with the one partner that matters most. And the Republican makes sure we don't do it anywhere else, except with Israel.

In fairness to Rep. Sherman, his comments on the floor make clear that he was offering his "don't deal with China" amendment as a "moderate" alternative to Harris's "don't deal with anyone (except Israel)." This is the state of bipartisan debate: the alternative to complete, destructive flat-Earthism (the Harris amendment) is targeted, specific, "moderate" flat-Earthism (the Sherman amendment). Rather than choose, the House embraces them both.

I realize this is a tiny rounding error in the larger-scale budget fights now going on. But it indicates the larger mindlessness of this moment in public affairs. Remember: the whole point of government is to match national resources to national challenges that won't otherwise be addressed.

Last week, a private utility called off its major carbon-capture project, because chaotic U.S. government policy left it unsure about whether it could cover the costs.  This moment in public decision-making isn't going to look very good in retrospect. It looks pretty bad right now.
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* There's a typo on the House Appropriations Committee site. The real vote was 236 in favor, not 326; and 185 opposed. Thanks to Joel Wiles of Stanford for noticing.


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/07/paging-edward-gibbon-the-imperial-dysfunction-chronicles/242131/