U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) did the planet and future generations an enormous favor recently when he derailed the Biden administration’s plan to spend $3.5 trillion on a lavish progressive wish list its proponents misleadingly call infrastructure. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Manchin said, “[S]ome in Congress have a strange belief there is an infinite supply of money to deal with any current or future crisis, and that spending trillions upon trillions will have no negative consequence for the future. I disagree.”
Manchin is right. As conservatives who believe climate change is a real problem that needs to be addressed, we also believe that the Biden administration’s spending agenda will make the problem worse, not better. It’s time to recycle government waste, not create more. Washington’s out-of-control spending, reckless borrowing and refusal to set priorities are some of the biggest threats that innovation and meaningful climate action face.
Manchin rightly called Washington’s recent overspending an “inflation tax,” echoing concerns expressed by former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. An inflation tax means consumers have less to spend on clean technology upgrades like electric cars and more efficient appliances.
Our nearly $29 trillion national debt also poses serious risks to our ability to address climate change. Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff found that when an advanced economy’s debt load reaches 90 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) it loses about 1 percent of GDP growth, which can amount to a slowdown of 25-33 percent. Our debt to GDP ratio is now 133 percent. Without strong economic growth, we’ll undermine our ability to innovate and develop and deploy the technologies we need to respond to climate change.
The progressive left hasn’t appreciated this challenge to their fiscal fantasy. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) accused Manchin of “killing people” and declared that she was “[s]ick of this ‘bipartisan’ corruption that masquerades as clear-eyed moderation.”
Washington’s corruption problem isn’t Manchin but its affinity for borrowing, money printing and tax increases, which are bailouts for politicians who lack the courage to make hard choices.
For policymakers who choose to look, the existing federal budget could substantially reduce the risks of climate while leaving plenty left over for tax cuts and entitlement reform. During the Reagan era, the Grace Commission found that one in every three tax dollars is wasted. In today’s numbers, that would amount to $1.58 trillion in annual waste. In 2011, the late U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) identified $9 trillion in savings over 10 years. Last year, the Republican Study Committee released a budget that saved $14.4 trillion over 10 years. For a third of this amount – about $5 trillion over 10 years – the world could put itself on a path to fully transition to nuclear energy. And if other developed countries pitched in, as they should, the costs would fall dramatically.
If policymakers listen to Manchin and others who want to live within our means, rather than President Biden or AOC, the public will line up behind them. In 2011, and again in 2014, Gallup found that the American public could support going farther than the most ambitious fiscal conservatives in Congress.
If progressives upset with Manchin refuse to pass an already aggressive Senate-passed $1.2 trillion package, they’ll be obstructing critical climate resilience projects in areas like the Gulf Coast.
The fight on the left is already raising a long-neglected question in the climate debate: Why can’t we cut spending instead of borrowing? The reality is we have the money and technology to significantly reduce the risks of climate change very quickly, fund national defense and perhaps invest in real infrastructure if policymakers summon the political courage to rethink government from top to bottom. As the great poet George Bernard Shaw once said, “There are those that look at things the way they are and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
The climate debate is at a “why not?” crossroads. If policymakers rethink their priorities and choose courage and principle over expediency and politics, millions of Americans, especially younger voters, will have their back.
John Hart is the co-founder of the Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions and the former communications director for U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn. Danielle Butcher is the executive vice president at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC).