An Energy Bill Both Parties Can Love

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 25: U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) speaks during a news conference September 25, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The House leadership held the news conference to call on the Congress to pass a clean debt ceiling increase. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) (National Journal)

While the passage of a raft of GOP-backed energy bills this month appeared to widen the divide between House Democrats and Republicans, a pair of lawmakers has forged a genuinely bipartisan plan to increase energy efficiency in the federal government.

Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., introduced a bill Thursday to allow federal agencies to expand the use of utility energy service contracts, which are agreements with utilities specifying "the amount of energy savings it will achieve through retrofits and other measures," according to a news release about the bill. "The utility is then paid for its performance out of the savings it achieves."

The legislation would allow agencies to enter into these performance contracts for up to 25 years, according to Welch and Gardner.

"The bill would allow private contractors to increase energy efficiency in federal agencies," Gardner told National Journal Daily. "The longer contract leads to greater energy savings, and it's a way to maximize the savings to the taxpayer."

This isn't the first time Welch and Gardner have collaborated on an energy-efficiency measure. The pair unveiled a similar plan to promote energy savings in federal buildings last July, and Welch is a cosponsor of a bill put forward with Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., that would serve as a companion to a Senate energy-efficiency bill introduced by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

The utility service-contract bill dropped this week also has a companion measure introduced by Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii; Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; and Dan Coats, R-Ind.

So far none of the proposals has made it out of committee. What's different this time around, congressional aides say, is that House leadership wants to see bipartisan legislation pass, in part, as a show of unity following the divisive partisan battles surrounding the government shutdown.

"All of us know that the shutdown and the conflict politics that came out of it have their limits," Welch said. "If we find common ground on something, that will be good for the institution and for both parties."

Welch and Gardner say they have also been working behind the scenes to build a broad consensus for energy efficiency, pointing to a letter signed this month by 70 Democrats and 47 Republicans in the House, along with Sens. Christopher Coons, D-Del., and John Boozman, R-Ark. The letter to the White House, dated Nov. 4 and released Wednesday, calls on President Obama to extend a directive to increase energy-efficiency efforts in federal agencies.

Gardner said he has spoken with House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., about moving additional energy bills to the floor next year, including energy-efficiency legislation.

When asked whether he thought the legislation would gain traction in the deeply divided lower chamber, Gardner commented: "I think it can. If you're looking for a trailblazer bill to show that you can create good policy with broad support, this bill is the perfect example."

Welch agreed. "Congress has got to get things done, and the only way we'll do that is by finding common ground," he said. "Issues in energy are contentious but efficiency isn't. Everyone agrees we need to have this done, so right now what we're doing is trying to smooth all the edges down and make sure that we do this in a way that works for both sides."