The False Heroes of the Poor

Conservatives’ Concern in Protesting Global Warming Legislation Dishonest

Conservatives in the House and Senate oppose global warming legislation they say will hurt the poor, but their voting records suggest opposition to helping these people, write Kalen Pruss and Carlin Rosengarten.

Michele Bachmann, like other conservatives in the House and Senate, has stated concern for her constituents over increased energy costs but consistently opposed measures that would have helped them, such as a minimum wage increase. (AP/Paul Sancya)
Michele Bachmann, like other conservatives in the House and Senate, has stated concern for her constituents over increased energy costs but consistently opposed measures that would have helped them, such as a minimum wage increase. (AP/Paul Sancya)

Conservatives have suddenly painted themselves as the dedicated protectors of America’s poor in protesting global warming legislation on the House and Senate floors. After careers spent voting against measures to help low-income families, conservative legislators have abruptly rushed to attack programs that would reduce greenhouse gas pollution, falsely claiming that such cuts inherently hurt low-income households. Examining these conservatives’ voting records, however, confirms that their newfound concern for America’s poor does not extend beyond hollow rhetoric. And the programs they oppose would actually assist low-income families with energy costs and create new domestic jobs.

There are several proposals now on Capitol Hill to protect middle- and low-income families from the costs to energy companies of pollution reduction programs. For example, President Barack Obama’s budget proposal included directing $60 billion in revenue from a program to cap and reduce global warming pollution to tax cuts for lower- and middle-income working families. And the next version of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s clean energy bill may include a provision to return revenue from a global warming reduction program directly to affected ratepayers. These rebates, paired with energy-efficiency and renewable electricity programs, would ultimately result in lower energy bills for low-income and middle-class Americans. This is in addition to the massive job creation potential of the bill, with nearly 300,000 jobs to result from the renewable electricity standard and over 200,000 from the energy efficiency resource standard alone.

The energy efficiency resource standard, or EERS sets mandatory annual electricity and natural gas consumption reduction targets for utilities. Reduction targets are met by implementing high-efficiency energy distribution and generation, verified end-user energy savings improvements (energy-efficient windows, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and other demand reduction efforts), and combined heat and power systems. By improving the efficiency of both power generators and energy consumers alike, the EERS program would save businesses and households money while reducing global warming pollution.

Meanwhile, the renewable energy standard, or RES would require utilities to obtain 25 percent of their reduced electricity load from clean, renewable energy sources by 2025. Both standards are major job generators because renewable energy and efficiency investments largely go to domestic labor-intensive industries such as equipment manufacturing, installation, and construction. With the national unemployment rate reaching 8.5 percent in March, these jobs are desperately needed by a growing number of struggling workers.

But conservative leaders ignore these facts, suggesting that their defense of the poor is not only misguided but also disingenuous. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) repeatedly protested the high costs of global warming pollution cuts to the poor, claiming that “an increase in electricity and gas prices would disproportionately affect people at the lower end of the economic ladder, and American families cannot afford a tax increase at a time when many are struggling to make ends meet.” Yet McConnell has consistently voted against the very people he claims to defend in opposing global warming legislation. McConnell voted “no” on increasing the minimum wage, on helping struggling families stay in their homes, and on extending health insurance for low-income children three times since 2007 (see chart (pdf)).

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is another "born again" advocate for low-income Americans. Inhofe decried legislators’ disconnect from their poorest constituents, exclaiming:

"We hang around Washington so long that we lose sight of the fact that if you are a poor person out there and you are spending half of your expendable income on driving your car and heating your home . . . when you increase the cost of energy in America, it is not only an increase in a tax, but it is also regressive because those who have the least income are going to be spending a greater amount of their income on the purchase of energy."

Apparently Inhofe has hung around Washington so long that he’s forgotten his own voting record. He voted against low-income families on every issue: affordable housing, unemployment benefits, health insurance for children, a higher minimum wage, and even tax cuts such as the “Making Work Pay” tax cut included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. If anyone has lost sight of the interests of the poor, it’s Inhofe.

Conservative leaders in the House are similarly deceptive and dishonest. Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT), for instance, argued that, “If you’re poor, that’s when you hurt. That’s when you have to decide whether you’re going to pay for gas or for heating or simply for food. That’s who gets hurt the most.” This populist streak stands in stark contrast with Bishop’s votes against programs to assist low-income families. He said no to increasing the minimum wage, refused to support children’s health care, and voted against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provides tax cuts for lower- and middle-class families, supports programs to boost our ailing economy, and puts people back to work retrofitting homes and buildings to make them more energy efficient. Considering his voting record, Bishop’s recent rhetoric in defense of impoverished Americans is both misleading and insincere (see chart (pdf)).

Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) likewise expressed phony concern for her low-income constituents, stating, “In one of my counties, Mr. Speaker, I was told that one of my counties has unemployment now reaching 10 percent. Where are these people going to go, Mr. Speaker, when this body decides to pass a budget that will tax them $4 trillion, that will impose out a doubling on their energy bills? What are families going to do?”

Apparently Bachmann didn’t see the benefit to her struggling constituents of increasing the minimum wage or expanding health insurance for children, which she voted against on five separate occasions. Even after the financial system collapsed in the fall of 2008, Bachmann voted against the Unemployment Compensation Extension Act, which provides extended unemployment insurance to out-of-work Americans—including almost 10 percent of her district.

Several of these legislators are also untruthful about how much pollution cuts will cost low-income families. McConnell and his fellow conservatives claim that capping greenhouse pollution will “hit every American family by up to $3,100 per year,” quoting a study by MIT professor John Reilly. This cost estimate is extremely exaggerated, and even Reilly has criticized conservatives’ fuzzy math. In a letter addressed to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), Reilly noted that $3,100 was actually “10 times the correct estimate, which is approximately $340,” and that the costs to lower- and middle-income families can be “completely offset by returning allowance revenue to these households.”

Yet even after the $3,100 “estimate” was thoroughly debunked, Michelle Bachmann blatantly misquoted Reilly in an op-ed published by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune.

It is clear given their voting records and past support from big oil that McConnell and his colleagues’ support for economically disadvantaged Americans is actually a transparent excuse to oppose necessary clean-energy and global warming job creation legislation, including the pollution reductions outlined in the House American Clean Energy and Security Bill.

Undermining this cornerstone of a new energy economy would actually cost low-income families money in the long term. According to Congressional Budget Office testimony on March 12, when the profits from a pollution cap are returned to utility customers, low-income families could, after a few years, enjoy a net income benefit. The CBO also pointed out that rebate payments to taxpayers could “more than offset the average increase in spending on energy-intensive goods by low-income households,” if all emissions allowances are sold in the open market.

Conservative senators and representatives are, in actuality, defending the status quo that allows big oil and utilities to pollute our air and destroy our climate free of cost. If conservative legislators truly wish to help struggling Americans, they should support greenhouse pollution reduction programs that would cut electricity bills and create clean-energy jobs for millions of low-income Americans.

Kalen Pruss and Carlin Rosengarten are both interns with the Energy Opportunity Program at American Progress. 

Also see:

Legislation conservatives opposed that would help low-income families

Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007 (HR 2):

It would increase the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour over the next two years. The House passed the bill by a 315–to-116 vote on January 10, 2007, but the Senate rejected the motion to invoke cloture, 54 to 43 on January 24, with 60 votes required to invoke cloture, end debate and pass the bill. The measure later passed as part of a war supplemental appropriations bill, HR 2206, and was signed into law on May 25, 2007 (PL 110-28).

Helping Families Save Their Homes in Bankruptcy Act of 2008 (SA 4388):

Vote to table (defeat) an amendment to authorize federal bankruptcy courts to modify the terms of nontraditional and subprime mortgages made on homeowners’ primary residences. Bankruptcy courts would enable to restructure the debt on home mortgages, reducing interest rates and extending repayment periods for homeowners who are declaring bankruptcy, cannot afford to make mortgage payments, and are in danger of foreclosure. The Senate tabled the amendment by a 58-36 vote on April 3, 2008, effectively killing the amendment.

Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HR 3221):

It would prevent the imminent foreclosure of an estimated 400,000 homes financed by subprime mortgages. The bill also provided for a temporary increase in the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, and encouraged builders to develop new affordable housing alternatives. The House passed the package by a 272-152 margin on July 23, 2008, and the Senate by 72-13 on July 26 with 15 members abstaining.

Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2008 (HR 6867):

Vote to provide additional emergency unemployment compensation. The bill provides an additional seven weeks of unemployment insurance to out-of-work Americans, or an additional 13 weeks in states where the unemployment rate is 6 percent or above. The House passed the motion with a 368-28 vote on October 3, 2008, and the Senate by 89 to 6 on November 20, and was signed into law the next day (PL 110-449).

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (HR 1):

It invested $767 (CK) billion to preserve and create jobs, and extend health care and assistance to the unemployed. It provided Title I funds to help disadvantaged students. The bill included the Making Work Pay refundable tax cut of up to $400 for working individuals and $800 for married taxpayers through the “Making Work Pay.” The law had money for affordable housing, homeless assistance and weatherization for low-income households. The House passed the bill with a 244-188 vote on January 28, 2009, and the Senate invoked cloture on February 9 by a 61-36 vote. President Obama signed the bill into law on February 17, 2009 (PL 111-5).

Children’s Health Insurance Plan Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 (HR 2):

Vote on passage of HR 2 to extend and improve the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, which provides health insurance to low-income children whose families do not qualify for Medicaid. The bill provides coverage for more than 4 million additional children. The House passed the bill on a 290-138 vote on January 14, 2009, and the Senate by a 66-32 margin on January 29. President Obama signed it into law on February 4, 2009 (PL 111-3).

While the House and Senate twice passed legislation to extend SCHIP coverage in 2007 (HR 976 and 3963), the House twice failed to muster a two-third vote to override former President Bush’s vetoes of it. The House voted 273-156 on October 18, 2007, and 260-152 on January 23, 2008. The Senate subsequently passed both bills by votes of 67-29 and 64-30, respectively.

Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009 (HR 1106):

Vote on passage of HR 1106 to prevent mortgage foreclosures and enhance mortgage credit availability. The bill permits bankruptcy courts to modify the terms of mortgages for debtors’ primary residences. The House passed the bill on March 5, 2009, by a 234-191vote. The Senate has yet to take action on this bill.

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