Editorial Board

Bipartisan Pettiness on Climate Change

House Republicans will hold their first hearing on climate change in more than two years this week. Sadly, its focus is unlikely to be sensible strategies that are sorely needed to reduce the U.S.’s greenhouse-gas emissions, such as setting a price on carbon, but rather how existing efforts to protect the climate are too expensive.

Representative Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican and chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on energy and power, has invited representatives of 13 federal agencies to appear, asking them to report on how much money they’ve spent on climate change; how many employees or contractors work on those files; the regulations they’ve issued or are developing; and the grants they’ve awarded.

The administration, for its part, seems unwilling to play ball. So far, only Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz have agreed to appear. That’s not the right response.

Although the Republicans’ see-nothing, do-nothing strategy on climate change is silly, they’re right to seek information about what the administration is doing and what it costs. President Barack Obama proposed a climate plan in June that seeks to work around Congress, which may help explain Republicans’ confrontational stance. Yet their posture doesn’t excuse the administration’s pathetic response or mean that congressional oversight is unimportant. If anything, the president’s strategy makes congressional oversight more important.

Oversight is more than just giving the executive branch a hard time, of course. Noticeably absent from the subcommittee’s otherwise detailed request for information are any questions about what the administration’s efforts have accomplished: how many kilowatt hours have been saved, tons of greenhouse-gas emissions reduced, products created, asthma diagnoses prevented. Those aren’t trivial questions; the answers are valuable to supporters and opponents of climate-change policies alike, and the failure to ask them is telling.

By not cooperating, however, the administration fails to acknowledge Congress’s legitimate responsibility to keep tabs on the executive branch. Worse, the agencies miss the chance to explain their achievements on climate change, instead asking Congress and the public to have blind faith in those efforts.

The agencies that have ignored the subcommittee’s invitation have plenty of information to share. The Export-Import Bank has a renewable-energy portfolio. The Agency for International Development has a global climate-change and development strategy. The Pentagon is investing in alternative fuels. The Department of Transportation has a climate-adaptation plan. Congress is right to ask about those initiatives, and the administration shouldn’t be surprised when lawmakers try to score political points.

Rather than stiff the subcommittee, the remaining agencies should use this opportunity to answer not only the questions that House Republicans have asked, but also the ones they haven’t: What’s worked, and what hasn’t? In the process, administration officials may be able to improve public understanding of the challenge and the response -- and, not incidentally, score a few political points themselves.