Guest Contributor

Tribal Sovereignty Legislative Action Study Group:

Making Lives Better for Indigenous People in Multnomah County and Beyond

by Elisha Big Back (Northern Cheyenne) and Ruth Jensen (Tlingit)

The purpose of the Tribal Sovereignty Legislative Action Study Group is to advance Indigenous priorities and connect with Indigenous cultures. The Group takes collective action monthly to advocate for Indigenous issues. All Democrats and non-affiliated voters are welcome to participate in these ways:

  • Joining an Indigenous-led effort with diverse advocates and allies
  • Activating Democratic networks to advance the causes of tribal sovereignty
  • Advocating for all citizens of tribal nations, both those citizens who reside in Multnomah County and beyond
  • Raising awareness of the sovereignty all tribal nations within the United States: unrecognized, dozens of state-recognized, and the 574 that are federally-recognized

Since its inception in July 2020, this Study Group met monthly for over a year. For more than half of 2021, the monthly meetings featured local Indigenous leaders who shared their perspectives on policy and actions to be taken to advance these policies.

Elisha Big Back (Northern Cheyenne) chairs the Tribal Sovereignty Legislative Action Study Group for MultDems’ Platform, Resolutions, and Legislation Committee.  She serves as the Foster Care Services Manager at the Native American Youth and Family Center, and she owns and operates Sisters Fry Bread, LLC. Her political experience ranges from helping Representative Tawna Sanchez get elected to campaigning for William Miller. She advocates on several coalitions such as Foster Homes of Healing. She has participated in lobby days at the Capitol and believes that all roads lead to policy change. With her wide and powerful network, she is bringing in new Indigenous leaders to participate in the Tribal Sovereignty Legislative Action Study Group.

In 2019, MultDems adopted the Tribal Sovereignty article of the 2020 Platform which led to the inaugural meeting of the Tribal Sovereignty Legislative Action Study Group on July 21 2020. On November 13, 2021, MultDems adopted the 2022 Platform with updated planks and action items for the Tribal Sovereignty Legislative Action Study Group.

All Democrats and non-affiliated voters are invited to join this Group: Indigenous people along with their allies and advocates. Please join the effort for advancing these planks and actions to uphold tribal sovereignty and make lives better for Indigenous people in Multnomah County and beyond. For more information, email .

What’s what in our government… Let’s get smarter about the Oregon legislature and its short sessions

by Dannelle D. Stevens, Election Integrity Study Group

Given the old idea that Oregon is a small state and does not need a full-time legislature, our state legislature does not meet full time. This worked when Oregon was simply a farming and logging state. Oregon is very different now. Yet, over two years, the state legislature meets for one long session of 160 days (second Monday in January through the end of June) on odd-numbered years, and one short session of 35 days (February 1 to March 7) on even-numbered years. Then the cycle begins again.

How do our representatives prepare for these sessions? Is what happens in the short session different from what happens in the longer one? In 2022, the Oregon House (40 members) and Senate (20 members) will have a short session of five weeks. Given its limited duration, traditionally this shorter session was meant for doing “cleanup” type bills or bills that address technical issues. However, this is not always the case and many legislators work on larger policy issues. The decisions about what will be the legislative priorities are being made NOW before Thanksgiving.

Really, folks!

Our Democratic representatives are requested by the party leader (Tina Kotek, House; Peter Courtney, Senate) to identify only TWO bills each to be considered during this short session.

Check out, where you will see the invitation to become engaged during November 15-18: “Opportunity to be engaged with committees and hearings.” If you have an issue you think is important, you had better sound off now because each rep must give their ideas for the two bills in November. That will be the work that the legislature will consider.

When the legislature is in session for these short periods, their work is intense. Things get left by the wayside in the rush to get legislation done in this short window. Look at the campaign finance initiative passed overwhelmingly by the voters in 2020 (72% in favor). The legislature was charged with creating the policies to enact this vote. No, they did not do this. Now, another effort by the voters must be launched. More voter energy is wasted on something we already told the legislature to do. Was it because there was not time? Just ask your representative.

There are some problematic assumptions about these short sessions. It is critical that we rethink the assumption that it is best for Oregon to have a part-time legislature. Oregon will now have six representatives in the U.S. Congress because of the population increases in the state. An increase in population size means an increase in needs. Government services need to be evaluated to support this increasing population from the DMV to the unemployment office to wildfire prevention. A part-time legislature has less time to attend to the state’s needs and less time to hear from the constituents.These legislators have to prioritize their actions. The voters lose.

We need a full-time legislature. What do you think?

Followup on redistricting from my August “What’s What” article. The realigned district maps are being challenged by the Republicans, but most observers believe the district lines will be sustained by the courts. A clear update (with maps) can be found at this link:

Dannelle D. Stevens is Precinct Committee Person (PCP) and Neighborhood Leader in District 41 (Inner SE Portland). Her interest in civic awareness started as a high school social studies teacher and led her to being a (now retired) teacher educator from Portland State University.

Photo credit: Wikipedia/public domain

Climate Action Team Update

by Tracy Farwell and Britton Taylor

The climate crisis is top of mind as the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) comes to a close in Glasgow. A coalition of local environmental and climate groups put together their own programming to align with the UN Conference. On November 1st, the COP26 Coalition Portland called for the Oregon Treasury and PERS to divest from fossil fuels (#DivestOregon). On November 3rd, Nick Caleb from Breach Collective, identified Portland’s worst polluters and offered ideas on how to better protect the city’s residents and climate. And on November 9th the Oregon League of Conservation voters hosted a webinar with Dr. John Perona, who discussed his new climate activist’s handbook. You can find the full slate of community events at

As part of the Multdems Platform Convention on November 6th, a group of dedicated and passionate PCPs from the MultDems Climate Action Team assembled for a National Resources Protection breakout session to identify legislative actions for our counterparts in Salem. 

The team swiftly reached consensus on more than 20 LAI’s, ranging from adopting a national clean energy standard to banning new fossil fuel infrastructure to setting aside 50% of Oregon’s federal forests as a strategic carbon reserve to banning non-recyclable plastics in all food take-out and in-store dining. This achievement was even more remarkable given that many of the participants were brand new to the Climate Action Team. It’s a testament to what’s possible when Democrats work together for a cause they all believe in.

If you want to get more involved with the Climate Action Team, which seeks to educate and inform our community about the science behind climate change and how it affects our lives and economy, please contact Tracy Farwell at .

How To Convince Reluctant Friends to Get Vaccinated

a conversation with Rep. Lisa Reynolds (HD 36)

More than 80 percent of adults vaccinated in Oregon so far, and many children are now eligible to get their first doses. However, even some vaccinated parents are worried about getting shots for their kids, for fear of possible side effects. We asked Oregon state Rep. Lisa Reynolds (House District 36), who is also an M.D., about the issues surrounding vaccines and how individual decisions affect everyone in the state.

Dr. Lisa Reynolds giving a COVID vaccine to one of her young patients.


What are health professionals telling parents about why it’s important to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Here’s what I see: There have been 6.5 million cases of pediatric COVID in the US with 25,000 children hospitalized. 600 kids have died from COVID. In Oregon, 600 kids have been hospitalized. There have been 50 severely ill children with the disease. There are cases of long COVID in kids (I have a few patients in this category). And 5 children have died. 

My colleagues who work in the Pediatric ICU tell me: there has not been a single vaccinated kid who needed intensive care services. The COVID cases that were sick enough to need an ICU were among unvaccinated kids and teens. The vaccine is safe and 90.7% effective. Furthermore, kids carry and spread COVID, putting elderly family members at risk. 

In terms of myocarditis (heart inflammation), 1 in 80,000 second doses of the vaccine can lead to a self-limited (full recovery) case of myocarditis, while 1 in 40 kids with COVID have more complicated heart inflammation with a more rocky recovery. These numbers are for the 12-17 years olds. We don’t know the numbers in the younger kids. No cases of heart inflammation were observed in the Pfizer studies. For all of these reasons, I am strongly encouraging all of my patients to get the COVID vaccine. 

Thousands of adults in Oregon still haven’t had their first COVID-19 shot. What do you think can convince people of the safety and efficacy of the vaccines ?

I’m at a bit of a loss on this. I talk to families — teens and parents — who are reticent to get the vaccine, even though they have had their kids fully vaccinated with all of the other vaccines we recommend. I try to listen to what people’s concerns are. I tell them I recommend the vaccine and why. And most of the time they’ve already decided “no”. I have heard that when there is an event that a person wants to attend (like a bar mitzvah or a baby shower) that requires attendees are vaccinated, then the person will get the vaccine.

For the most part, I applaud the proof-of-vaccine requirement for public events. I am not currently eating indoors in restaurants, though I have been enjoying the variety of outdoor options. I will only consider eating indoors if there is a vaccine requirement. I will only go into the homes of people who have been vaccinated. 

Our state (and Multnomah County especially) have suffered economically since March 2020. What do you see are some ways MultDems can lead the way to bring our region and state back to economic and social health?

Patronize local businesses! And keep asking our electeds to do all they can to help those who are struggling. We’ve had unprecedented monies arrive from the federal government. Now we need to put it to work to get people housed, to right inequities, to improve access to behavioral health and addiction services. 

Connect with Rep. Reynolds at:, and follow her on Twitter: @RepLisaReynolds.

Member Spotlight: Laurie Wimmer

The spotlight is on Laurie Wimmer this month. A dedicated progressive activist and one of the key architects of Oregon’s Student Success Act (which will add $1 billion a year in perpetuity to the state’s chronically underfunded public education system) Laurie also ran for state representative from HD 36 in 2019.
Since then, she has remained active in investigating issues surrounding the state’s schools as Government Relations Consultant at the Oregon Education Association. Laurie has been a PCP and member of the Education Caucus, recently coordinating a subcommittee to develop a proposed resolution. She also was a recent presenter at meetings of the Education Study Group. She responded to a few questions about her work and why she is a Multnomah County Democrat.

Why did you become involved in the Democratic Party of Multnomah County?

I am a third-generation Oregon Democrat, child of two union members, and parent to yet another generation of Dems. My core values drive me to the party; my 32 years in Multnomah County make the Multnomah Dems my “home base”.

Why do you think it’s important for Democrats to become involved at the local level?

As our country becomes more divided and toxic, we need folks to help shine the light of our pro-community values. As a proud union advocate and 26-year public schools defender, I also believe that we need more voices in the party lifting up these critical concerns. I will be retiring soon from my position representing the Oregon Education Association and its 41,000 members, but I want to invest the expertise I have gained over more than 30 years in Oregon politics to keep making a positive contribution for the benefit of Oregon and her people. I think I’m not alone in seeking to marry values with activism, and that’s why it’s important for us all to become involved. If more of us invest the time, we can surely prevail against the toxic forces who would steer us toward a troubling future.

What are some of the priorities for our state and for Multnomah County this year?

We must seize this moment to elevate workers’ voices, to make progress once and for all on economic justice. We must protect our core public services, including public education, from fiscal erosion and privatization by corporate entities. We must save the planet from the existential crisis of climate change. And we must expand our efforts to ensure civil rights, justice, and equality for all in substantive, meaningful ways. These imperatives will define the future for our children and theirs.

What is making you hopeful right now?

I have learned, both as an advocate and as a candidate for office, that there are far more good people than selfish or dangerous actors, and that gives me great hope. I also know that we lead the nation in our insistence on racial, reproductive, and climate justice as well as on other critical issues — and by doing so, we set an example of what is possible for a more just world.

What advice can you provide to our Democrats in Multnomah County?

Never give up fighting for the righteous causes in which you believe — and take your stand in meaningful, not just performative, ways. Also, help to elect leaders who will do the same.

photo credit: Dr. Ramin Farahmandpur

An active PCP reflects on what redistricting means for his North Portland neighborhood, and what he’s doing now to prepare for the 2022 elections

As a result of the state’s growth in population over the past decade, Oregon recently earned a new Congressional seat. House Speaker Tina Kotek created a special committee to draw congressional district lines, and Governor Brown signed the measure hours after it passed the legislature. The new lines divide Portland into three districts, and the changes will affect several statewide races next year. As Republicans continue to challenge the new lines, we asked activist and HD 44 Precinct Committee Person Tom Karwaki of North Portland to tell us how he expects things to go in the coming weeks and months. He talks about the work he’s doing to insure that Democrats are elected in 2022.

An interview with Tom Karwaki, PCP in HD 44

1. How do you expect the new district lines to affect your House District (both statewide and Congressional)?

The new lines tear out half the heart and the icon of the North Portland Peninsula in HD 44 and joins it to NW Portland where the only significant community of interest is the St Johns bridge itself. However, other than that loss of Cathedral Park and some of St Johns, HD44 is pretty much the same just more compact. State Senator Frederick was opposed to losing Cathedral Park but not moving; it would have meant major shifts elsewhere. The BIGGEST news is that Senator Frederick and Senator Mike Dembrow both live in the new district. Both get to be Senators through 2024! Earl [Blumenauer] is still our favorite Congressional cyclist and transit rider.

2. How can Multnomah County Democrats get involved in the upcoming 2022 midterm elections?

The 2022 Election Season is upon us. Tell your friends to check their voter registration to make sure their party is DEMOCRATIC. Voter registration efforts are beginning this month with PCPs and Neighborhood Leaders. Our big push is to contact Non-Affiliated Voters (NAVs), and let them know how to become Democrats! Faith [Ruffing] is heading up the Platform Convention this fall, and everyone is invited!

3. How are you personally going to stay active in the coming year, as a PCP and Democrat? 

My 2022 resolution is to personally knock on at least 500 doors before the May primary (Speaker Kotek is running for Governor!). To recruit 10 new Neighborhood Leaders to reach 50 doors each and help others reach 50 doors each. The May Primary will be the big event and everyone is welcome to march in the St. Johns Parade on May 7th and help register folks and hand out literature at the St Johns Bazaar.

For information about the new district lines, visit

What’s What in Our Government? Let’s Get Smarter about Portland, Oregon

Contributed by Dannelle D. Stevens, Chair of the Election Integrity Platform Sub-committee

Portland City Hall

Portland used to be called “the city that works”.  Now, it doesn’t seem to work!
What can YOU do about it?  A lot!

First, note that a citizen-oversight group is working on making a difference and has the power to make a big difference!  The Portland Charter Review Commission was created by law and meets every 10 years to assess how our city government is working. Check out the Commission here!. This current citizen-oversight group of 20 mostly young, diverse, and politically active people can recommend to the current council and send to voters their recommendations for changes in our city government STRUCTURE and OPERATIONS!

Second, recognize that this Portland Charter Review Commission needs to hear from all of us.
Submit only your email for updates for Review Commission meetings and activities.

Third, ACT!  Pay attention to the Commission website because they are in “the-seeking-public-comment” mode.   To comment on changing the form of government, you can enter your comment here: PublicComment Form of Government. Submit your comment by 8:00 AM two days before the meeting.To attend the Form of Government meeting via Zoom, go to the EVENTS page on the Review Commission website and click the Zoom link on the day. There are other meetings on the Events page that you might want to attend, as well.

Form of Government Sub-Committee: Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, 6-8 PM and Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, 6-8 PM

Here is a quick summary of the problems and suggestions for improvement in Form of Government.

Fundamental problems with the structure of the city of Portland government

Currently, there are only five Council members.  We have a COMMISSION form of government. All Council members are elected at large, meaning by all the people, not by geographic districts. The Mayor is elected at large and is one of the five members of the City Council.

After Commissioners are elected and as a commission form of government, the Mayor divides up all the city agencies and each Council member manages that agency. They must manage key city agencies like housing, water, police, parks and recreation, development services, social services, etc.

None of these commissioners are elected with the idea that they know anything about managing, for example, the water bureau. None are prepared to manage these large and complex agencies. It takes a long time to learn how to work with the agencies, implement policies, and meet the city’s needs like addressing the homeless crisis.

Many observers have concluded that the commission form of government might work for a city of 10,000, but, not for a big city of more than 800,000.

There are experts who do know and can manage these vital departments in a non-partisan way. These experts would be accountable to the City Council. Many cities around Portland have a city manager-council form of government.

Suggested Ideas for addressing these structural problems.

1. Fundamentally change the form of government from the commission form to a form with a City Manager who is hired and can be fired by the City Council, and a City Council of at least nine members with or without a mayor elected separately.

 2. Fundamentally change job descriptions. City Council members would maintain its legislative role–making policy and allocating money to implement policy.  The City Manager would manage all agencies.

 3. Elect a non-partisan mayor in a city-wide election. Elect non-partisan council members by districts that are drawn by an independent, non-partisan commission. Districts should be equally populated, contiguous and compact, and represent the diversity of the city’s residents. Each district would have the same number of representatives; 1 or more.  4. Create citizen oversight and advisory boards to to inform bureaus and departments–such as policing, land use, homelessness, civil rights, parks and recreation.

This is part of a series of articles about how government works. For more information about the Election Integrity Study Group, visit the Volunteer Opportunities page. To contact Dannelle D. Stevens, email

photo credit: Wikipedia

Member Spotlight: Ruth Jensen (Tlingit)

Ruth Jensen

Ruth Jensen is a member of the Central Committee for the Oregon Democratic Party, and a dedicated MultDems PCP and work group member here in Multnomah County. As part of our Member Spotlight series, we asked Ruth a few questions to learn why she is a Multnomah County Democrat. Lately, she has been deeply involved in drafting the new party platform as Chair of the Tribal Sovereignty Legislative Action Study Group.

What are the different roles you have served in the Democratic Party?

On March 6, 2018, I filed for Precinct Committee Person having only the slightest notion of what that would entail. My only frame of reference was when I was a PCP for the Republican Party during one cycle in the 1970s. In that case, it meant dropping off literature on doorsteps. I’ve long since become a Democrat and worked on presidential campaigns: Kucinich, Obama, Obama, Hillary, and Bernie.

Next, in the spring of 2018, Valdez Bravo (Standing Rock Sioux/Latino) initiated the founding of the Native American Caucus of the Democratic Party of Oregon. He networked his way across Indian Country in Oregon to reach all the heavy-hitters. One such heavy-hitter referred Valdez to me, a worker-bee. That August, DPO’s newly minted Caucus hosted its inaugural meeting when I was elected secretary.

Later, in January 2019, on the New Deal Democrats’ slate, I successfully ran for delegate to the State Central Committee. After giving my brief campaign speech before the assembly, Sally Joughin, co-founder of MultDems’ Racial Inclusivity Work Group (RIWG), invited me to consider joining RIWG where I later served a one-year term.

RIWG co-founders are Greg Burrill, Rosa Colquitt, Colleen Davis, GM García, Debbie Gordon, Sally Joughin, and last but not least: Beth Woodward who responded to my questions and coached me through the intricacies of article-development.

With the leadership of GM García and Salomé Chimuku, RIWG created the environment for a Tribal Sovereignty article to be added to MultDems’ Platform. I had the good fortune of working together with RIWG to create and move this article forward. Convention delegates approved this article in November 2019. Starting in July 2020, I chaired the Tribal Sovereignty Legislative Action Study Group of the Platform, Resolutions, and Legislation Committee. Elisha Big Back (Northern Cheyenne) now chairs this Study Group.

Why did you become involved in the Democratic Party of Multnomah County?

I was compelled to get involved by the 2016 election to do my part to make sure: never again! Being invited initially by Valdez and Sally made it easy to get involved. They showed me a place where I could contribute my knowledge, skills, and abilities. This facilitated my settling in. Feeling welcome by Valdez, RIWG, and many others compounded my interest to stay.

Why do you think it’s important for Democrats to become involved at the local level?

Not everyone is inclined to run for office and work in Salem or Washington, D.C. Working at a local level gives volunteers the opportunity to see a bigger picture upfront and personal and to see how to align their community with our Democratic values. Local participation offers a wide variety of opportunities to contribute time and talents corresponding with varying levels of availability. Plus, together we can help build a community of diverse perspectives where they can all be presented and heard.

What are some of the priorities for our state and for Multnomah County this year?

  1. Educate the people of Oregon about tribal sovereignty and tribal nations’ unique, political relationship with the United States government as upheld in treaties, the U.S. Constitution, U. S. Supreme Court cases, federal and state legislation, and executive orders.
  2. Recognize the cultural strengths and intergenerational wisdom of Indigenous people that have allowed survival despite generations of atrocities.
  3. Close all racial disparities such as those related to health, housing, and education.
  4. Honor the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which “establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, wellbeing and rights of the world’s indigenous peoples.”

What is making you hopeful right now?

The Democrats I know who are unrelentingly committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion inspire me – like the co-founders of RIWG and MultDems as a whole for embracing such a group. I’m hopeful because of everyone who made the Tribal Sovereignty article possible and because of all who have ever attended a meeting of the Tribal Sovereignty Legislative Action Study Group. They all have contributed to the kaleidoscope of efforts moving us toward liberty and justice for all.

What advice can you provide to our Democrats in Multnomah County?

MultDems: Take it upon yourself to go out of your way to welcome newcomers – even in our Zoom environment. Help them to find a place that feels like home.

All other Democrats in Multnomah County: Maybe you’ve never attended a meeting of Multnomah County Democrats. You are welcome here. You don’t have to do anything. It is enough for you to be with us. If you would like to do something, there is something that will make you smile for knowing you are helping to create a community that aligns with our Democratic values.

What are the goals and benefits of joining the Tribal Sovereignty Legislative Action Study Group?

The goals of the Study Group are to advance Indigenous priorities and connect with Indigenous cultures and to take collective action monthly to advocate for Indigenous issues.

  • Joining an Indigenous-led effort with diverse advocates and allies
  • Activating Democratic networks to advance the causes of tribal sovereignty
  • Advocating for all citizens of tribal nations, both those who reside in Multnomah County and beyond
  • Raising awareness of the sovereignty all tribal nations within the United States: unrecognized, dozens of state-recognized, and 574 federally-recognized

This is the value proposition developed by the Study Group’s Leadership Transition Workgroup.
To find out more about the Study Group, email:

Photo credit: Sue Sullivan

Should High School Students Be Tested for Graduation?

The MultDems Education Study Group Examines the Evidence

by Margi Brown and Mary Thamann, Education Study Group co-chairs

Oregon Senate Bill 744 would suspend essential skills testing for high school graduation. Conservatives have criticized the bill as detrimental to educational quality, but the evidence does not bear this out.
The Education Study Group has been working over the last couple of years on two issues related to standardized testing: (1) standardized testing of children in grades K-2 and (2) the essential skills test required for graduation. We have been particularly focused this last year on the amount of testing being done on K-2 students. Oregon requires that incoming kindergarten students take standardized assessments not required by the federal government. Much of the focus of the testing is developmentally inappropriate for this age group.  To administer the test at the very beginning of the student’s experience in the classroom limits the ability of kindergarten teachers to establish the social/emotional climate of the classroom for a productive learning environment.  

Some conservative news reports and editorials criticize Senate Bill 744, which suspends the essential skills test required for high school graduation. These commentators imply that by eliminating the essential skills test, it will somehow diminish educational quality or hurt minority students.

These arguments need a reality check. Under SB 744, students will still need to pass all required classes to graduate. It will not change the proficiency requirements set up for past generations. There is no credible evidence that graduation tests produce any positive outcomes, nor have they been found to have any predictive value of post-high school success. Grade Point Average (GPA) is the best predictor. Countless students have dropped out of high school because they assumed that they could not surmount a testing barrier for graduation. This has applied overwhelmingly to low-income students and students of color, which greatly impacts their future earning ability. 

[Editor’s note: For a review of research on state graduation test requirements and outcomes, visit]

The developmentally inappropriate kindergarten tests and the unnecessary high school graduation testing requirement are just two examples of excessive, wasteful, and harmful standardized tests that now drive so much of what happens in our schools. We have now lived with this accountability and data driven educational model for more than 20 years. It has not worked. It is well past time for a change.

For more information about volunteering with the MultDems Education Study Group, visit The study group meets monthly via Zoom. To join, please email Margi Brown at .

Margi Brown
Margi Brown, Education Study Group Co-Chair

Update On National Climate Legislation

by Jeff Hammarlund

Hello from our family cabin on Priest Lake in northern Idaho. We do have occasional access to the Internet up here, but we will leave by canoe on a camping trip tomorrow, so I won’t have any way to communicate for the next few days.,As you probably heard, the Senate passed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill this morning.  Here is a link to the best summary I have found on what is and is not in that bill. 
The infrastructure bill now goes to the House. I hope Nancy Pelosi will stand by her commitment to keep a hold on the bipartisan bill (despite pressure from the more moderate House Democrats) until the Senate passes the much more extensive budget reconciliation package that includes the climate provisions that now must proceed through the reconciliation process. With their passage of the infrastructure bill, Senate Democrats immediately turned their attention to getting the filibuster-proof $3.5 trillion reconciliation package moving. On August 9, the Senate Budget Committee, chaired by Bernie Sanders, released its resolution that contains the instructions for Senate and House committees to draw up policies in their jurisdiction, which will be cobbled together in the coming weeks into a filibuster-proof reconciliation bill. Majority Leader Schumer released an accompanying memo that gives more detailed direction on which committees will be responsible for developing the specific policy details on different pieces of the reconciliation package.

Senator Sanders announced that he believes that his committee’s Budget Resolution “will allow the Senate to make the most significant investment in tackling the climate crisis in US history, and put America on a path to meet President Biden’s climate change goals of 80% clean electricity and 50% economy-wide carbon emissions reductions by 2030.” 

The Good and Bad News

The resolution and memo provide good and bad news. On the good news side, the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, gets to play a major role in the reconciliation package. Wyden’s proposed Clean Energy for America Act is excellent, has already passed out of the Finance Committee, and will form the basis for the Committee’s work to be meet its budget resolution assignment. It provides a sweeping clean energy tax overhaul that would expand and consolidate a host of energy tax credits into three categories intended to push the production of clean electricity, clean transportation fuels, and energy efficiency. Just as important, it would also eliminate all existing subsidies and tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry and provide a “border adjustment tariff” to levy charges against imported products from nations that lack significant carbon and other greenhouse gas emission controls. By eliminating these subsidies and tax breaks, the Finance Committee is charged with reducing the federal budget by $1 billion over the next 10 years and provide much of the funding for the clean energy tax credits. Other committees have been given important roles as well. For example, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is allocated $67 billion to establish and fund a methane fee, various clean vehicle investments, a clean energy accelerator, and EPA’s new environmental justice programs. The Agriculture Committee is allocated $135 billion for a variety of regenerative agriculture, climate resilience, and carbon reduction programs. The Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee is directed to draw up policies to electrify federal buildings and vehicle fleets as part of its $37 billion allocation. On the House side, the Energy and Commerce Committee would get a $486.5 billion allocation, while the Natural Resources Committee would get $25.6 billion.

The bad news is that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, is allocated $198 billion to take the lead on the bill’s most important new climate program – what is now called the Clean Electricity Payment Program (CEPP) – that would fit the strict rules that govern the budget reconciliation process. We know that Senator Manchin is only open to a clean energy standard if it does not “forcibly eliminate fossil fuels.” His campaign ads are notorious for showing macho Joe shooting previous climate bills with a rifle “because it’s bad for West Virginia.”

Unfortunately, the best possible outcome now seems to be that Manchin will agree to a Clean Energy Payment Program that will primarily benefit truly clean energy (energy efficiency, solar, wind, geothermal, etc.) while also allowing his pet project, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, to qualify. as well  While Manchin is less supportive of new nuclear power plants, the CEPP will almost certainly be technology-neutral, so if new nuclear plants are built, they will also qualify as clean since they are not significant sources of greenhouse gases. It is very likely that CCS and new (and at least some existing) nuclear plants will fail since they will no longer be able to rely on their substantial existing subsidies (assuming Wyden does his job), but this remains to be seen.

The CEEP cannot be a true Clean Energy Standard because it is not possible to include a regulatory standard in a reconciliation bill. Instead, it will involve a system of fines and payments that will incentivize utilities to increase their proportion of renewable energy to meet the targets. Advocates argue that a CEEP actually has some advantages over the traditional clean energy standards and renewable portfolio standards commonly seen at the state level. It’s more progressive: the money to drive the transition comes from federal coffers (via taxes on corporations and the wealthy as established through the Senate Finance Committee) rather than from electricity rates, which are traditionally regressive. For more information on how this is expected to work, check out these two helpful articles linked here and here.

My Very Limited Role

I am now able to mention that I had a very small role in the development of the CEPP. My participation was due to a number of factors: I was once a member of the professional staff of the Senate Energy Committee with the responsibility for addressing renewable energy and energy efficiency provisions, I currently serve as an adviser to the DNC Climate Council, and, probably most important, I have personal and professional relationships with some of the key people who had a much more significant role in the development of the CEEP.  (It is worth noting that I made it clear that I was participating on my own as a concerned citizen and was not “wearing any of my other hats” such as those associated with Climate Crisis Policy, Earth Bill, Indivisible, EMO Creation Justice Committee, NW Energy Coalition, etc.) My role was very limited and simply involved serving as a sounding board to respond to specific questions and offer occasional suggestions when asked. To use an analogy from the musical Hamilton I used once before, I was most definitely not “in the room where it happened.” I was not even in the room next to the room where it happened. At best, I was in the closet in the room next door, but the closet door was sometimes opened enough for me to get a general sense of what was going on. That was exciting enough for me at this late stage of my life. 

I also made sure my contacts knew that I was personally opposed to measures that would advance CCS and civilian nuclear power, and that their inclusion would receive vigorous push back from many.  However, it was explained to me that the political realities are that if these were not allowed under the CEEP, no meaningful climate bill would pass out of the Senate, period. Bernie Sanders, and all the other progressive environmentalists in the Senate and House know this to be true, and while they are not happy about it, most are now demonstrating a willingness to be candid about it.  I wish this was not the case, but we need all 50 Democrats in the Senate to support this bill, including Joe Manchin. And Joe Manchin’s (and Kyrlsten Sinema’s) votes will come at a cost.  

My Thoughts on Next StepsI appreciate that many of my friends and colleagues in the climate movement will be disappointed that this bill does not go as far as we had hoped.  They have every reason to be disappointed.  At the same time, I will tell you that I plan to support this bill as vigorously as I can.  Why? David Roberts said it best in his recent essay, Crunch Time: This Is America’s Last Chance at Serious Climate Policy for a Decade. To summarize his very important essay, “What Democrats are able to get through in the reconciliation bill is likely to be the last big federal climate legislation for a decade at least.”

When David published his essay on August 8, he wrote “Looking around, it doesn’t seem like clean energy supporters, climate hawks, or the left more broadly really get that. So let’s talk about why this is such an important moment and what’s at stake”.  Fortunately, some important players on the left, including the Sunrise Movement, have since indicated that they do get it, as suggested by their “Seal the Deal Day of Action on August 19. 
I encourage you to take a good look at the Reconciliation Package as it develops and see if you can get behind it too  It is consistent with Biden’s climate goals and objectives.  The only reason it stops at 80% clean in the power sector by 2030 rather than 100% by 2035 is the fact that a budget reconciliation can only go out to 2030.

As a political scientist who used to work on the Hill, I know that democracy is often messy and frustrating. For better or worse, our founding fathers decided to make it very difficult for major legislation to pass both chambers. If they knew then what we know about the urgent need to address climate change, they might have setup the system differently. But they didn’t, so we are stuck with what we’ve got.  
Let’s get the best deal we can given the political realities while the Democrats still have their razor-thin majorities in both chambers.  It may not be enough, but we have a better chance of improving an imperfect law through future amendments once the law is passed. At least we will have something on the books we can work with to improve. This is how it has worked with most of our major environmental laws – the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and many more.