Bernie Sanders used to be Congressman-at-large from Vermont. Now he's Vermont's junior Senator. In so many ways, however, he's the nation's Senator-at-large, showing the way when so many others in Congress have lost theirs.
While a good chunk of Congress, including a majority of the freshman class in the House, are climate-change deniers, Sanders has no illusions about where we need to be headed. That's why he introduced the 10 Million Solar Rooftops bill last June. That bill, now with seven co-sponsors, was approved for a vote by the full Senate in December. It's also why he introduced legislation to end oil and coal subsidies last year. That bill got just 35 votes in the Senate. But he vowed Tuesday not to give up. Here he is at the 350.org rally in Washington, D.C.:
“We’ve got to end all of the tax breaks for the oil companies and coal companies and I’m going to introduce legislation to do just that,” Sanders told demonstrators clad in black-and-white striped referee shirts who rallied to “blow the whistle” on members of Congress and Big Oil.
Ending tax breaks and subsidies for oil and gas companies would reduce the deficit by more than $40 billion over the next 10 years. Sanders’ legislation will end those tax breaks and tens of billions of dollars in other special subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.
President Obama said much the same thing in the State of the Union address later Tuesday:
"We've subsidized oil companies for a century. That's long enough. It's time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that rarely has been more profitable, and doubledown on a clean energy industry that never has been more promising. Pass clean energy tax credits. Create these jobs."
The trouble is, he's been saying much the same thing with each budget he submits, and every time, Congress has not agreed. Besides ignoring Sen. Sanders's bill last year, and Obama's budget proposal, Congress refused to go along with the proposal of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who wanted to cut some $2 billion in subsidies solely from the five big dogs in the oil business: BP, Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron and Conoco Phillips.
Together over the past decade, those five have put $1 trillion on their bottom lines. And yet some of them have had years in which they not only paid zero income taxes, they actually got rebates. Exxon Mobil paid $39 million in taxes on the $9.9 billion in U.S. profits it made for 2009-2010. Its effective tax rate? 0.4 percent. Outrageous, but perfectly legal.
Sanders told the 350.org crowd, "One of the absurdities that goes on right here in Washington, D.C., is that Congress keeps voting not for the interest of our children, not in the interest of our future, but for the profits of the huge oil and coal companies."
There's a good reason for this outcome. In 2011 alone, oil and gas companies spent more than $100 million lobbying Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics reports. Since 1990, they have collectively passed out $238.7 million to candidates and parties, three-fourths of it to Republicans. Exxon Mobil alone contributed $872,694 to candidates in 2010-2011. Sitting members of Congress received $12 million in contributions from oil and gas interests from July 2009 through July 2011, according to the non-partisan research group Maplight.
Sanders isn't only saying enough is enough when it comes to subsidies of Big Oil, however. He chairs the Senate Green Jobs and New Economy Subcommittee and he takes it seriously. His proposal for 10 million solar rooftops helps fill in the other side of the fossil-fuels equation: getting America into the renewables business in a way that Denmark and Germany have already done. Those countries did that while U.S. leaders slept and much of Congress, including far too many Democrats, took the view that renewables are some kind of silly fad that can never provide any appreciable proportion of our electricity. Which happens to be nonsense.
"This legislation will make it more affordable for families and businesses to install solar, by helping communities reduce the costs associated with solar energy permitting," Sanders said. "As we lower the cost of solar energy and increase our use of solar, we can create hundreds of thousands of good-paying manufacturing and installation jobs in this country. This bill also sets strong targets for American solar energy production, to ensure we compete vigorously with China and Europe for solar energy jobs."
The specific objective behind the legislation, which emerged in December from the Natural Resources and Energy Committee on a 13-8 vote, is to spur local governments with grants to simplify the permitting process to install solar and lower their costs. A January 2011 report says that inefficient permitting and inspections at the local level now add an average $2516 to solar installations without adding to safety or providing any other benefit. This is delaying "grid parity," the stage at which solar can stand on its own as an economic choice for homeowners, without need for subsidies.
Excessive local fees and "slow, manual submittal and inspection processes" will, in effect, add a $1 billion a year tax over the next five years on solar installations, the report states. Germany, where solar installations have soared, has eliminated special permitting for solar. That gives Germans a 40 percent cost advantage over Americans when they install solar on small businesses and homes.
The Department of Energy has developed a model streamlined process that could easily be adopted across the country and bring grid parity for half of American homes in just two years. That's the goal of the Senator's bill. This achievement would amount to a billion-dollar subsidy for solar rooftops installations. It would only cost Americans about 35 cents each to fund, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
No Senate vote has been scheduled yet, but in a smart Congress, this legislation would be on a fast track for President Obama's desk. In a smart Congress, this legislation ought to have 70 instead of seven co-sponsors. After all, it's directed at cutting red tape, something politicians across the spectrum are always telling voters they are dedicated to accomplishing. In a smart Congress, this legislation would be amended to 20 million solar rooftops.