Tales from the Trenches: Yesterday’s Senate Finance Hearing

This is the first post of what will hopefully develop into a series. Bronwyn and I have been spending a couple of days a week on Capitol Hill, sometimes to attend hearings/markups and sometimes to meet with targeted staffers, since leaving my job at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities about a month ago.  Yesterday I attended my first hearing that was absolute catnip for lobbyists, and it’s a story well worth sharing with you all.

The hearing was convened by the Senate Finance Committee and addressed a topic familiar to Carrots & Sticks followers: carbon auctions and allocations. In layman’s terms for the uninitiated, what does the Senate want to do with the money raised by placing a price on carbon emissions? The House (meaning Henry Waxman) decided to use that money essentially to buy votes – deals were struck to award free permit allocations to certain industries (guess which) that have the political muscle to kill a bill if their representatives are not sufficiently pandered to. And because this deal was so delicate, passing with one vote over the minimum amount needed, the Senate is using the Waxman-Markey legislation as their starting point. Rather than focusing on the content of the hearing, which you can find here and here, I will share my experiences before, during and after the hearing which are frankly quite a bit more interesting.

I arrived at the location of the hearing room at about 9:10 for a 10:00 hearing. Unfortunately, there was already quite a long line, yet most of the folks in the front of the line looked awfully underdressed to be attending a Senate Finance Committee hearing and many of them were holding signs with names on them. I quickly discerned these people to be the notorious linesitters, many of them homeless, that have started to gain some attention elsewhere in left blogistan. It is truly amazing that businesses can pay needy people to hold for them a prime place in line, sometimes paying the arranging companies as much as $3500 to do so, and thus essentially buying the best seats in the house. Amazingly, a couple lobbyists arrived too late to cash in on their prime spots, and ended up milling around outside the room to try and catch stray Senators. Standing not too far from them was a small cadre of a couple news reporters and their camera/microphone posses, probably from CNN and Fox, looking for a quickie interview.

Unfortunately, the Senate Finance hearing room is pretty small, seating only around 40 people, so the majority of the spots were taken up by those the placeholders had held places for. I was unable to make it in, and the Senate Finance Committee generally does not provide an overflow room for the poor saps standing in line for themselves, as many other committees  do. After talking to some other folks who were shut up but closer to the door, I would’ve had to get there before 8:00 to realistically have a shot. Nevertheless, I decided to wait. I was able to receive periodic updates from the staffers guarding the door, and listened to a conversation or two happening among other intrepid fellow stragglers. One represented a coalition of utility companies, while another worked for Resources for the Future and was mostly there to see her boss Dallas Burtraw testify, and another was a wide-eyed, braces-laden young intern for Jim DeMint who had just started the day before, was still growing accustomed to the atmosphere, and for some reason took a liking to the utility lobbyist.

The hearing sped through opening statements and testimony since Baucus & friends were racing to beat an expected call to the full Senate floor for a series of votes. After some initial questioning, there was a recess of a few minutes while nobody was there to conduct the hearing, at which point I was able to get into the room. During the break in action, I spoke with a Specter climate fellow who seemed agnostic about the Waxman-Markey framework and skeptical that any of the Senators actually knew how the program works. He seemed to imply that even most witnesses on the climate issue don’t understand the technical details of cap-and-trade. Perhaps we should introduce him to our resident climate guru and former EPA policy wonk Craig?

Finally, the hearing started up again when Ranking Member Grassley ambled in and quieted down the crowd, and I was able to catch the tail end in person. The questioners I was able to see were Grassley, Menendez, Carper, Landrieu and Kerry, who filed in and out of the room intermittently as is often the case with these sort of hearings. Bronwyn was also watching the webcast and we shared our very poignant reactions back and forth via e-mail. The hearing adjourned at just after 11:30 with a fiery closing speech by a straggling Sen. Kerry, who laid down a gauntlet that if nothing was done within the next year or so the EPA would have to act unilaterally, and nobody wants that if it can be avoided. He then ran off to join the president’s lunch meeting with the Senate Dems, and I went to get lunch myself in the surprisingly high quality Senate cafeteria.

-Jeremy

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