Low-Energy Fridays: The Role of the Speaker in Climate Policy
The House of Representatives has finally elected a new speaker, which means that every politically damaging or salacious quote that person has ever uttered is surfacing in the media. The reason, of course, is that policy fundamentally flows from politics—and with new Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) being such an unknown, there are significant questions as to how future climate and energy policy will be different. The short answer is that nobody knows yet, but the long answer is more complicated.
The speaker’s purpose is to facilitate the function of the House of Representatives in its roles of legislating, debating and providing oversight. Their first responsibility is the procedural administration of the House and its voting. But one of the most important ways the speaker influences policy is through assigning membership to committees. It is in these committees where legislation is primarily debated and advanced, making them essential to the nation’s policy formation.
The speaker can also establish new committees that set a tone on policy priorities, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi did when she established the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The speaker’s policy responsibility primarily entails setting the tone and fostering discussion around legislation related to the issues they prioritize.
Speaker Johnson’s growing influence on the future of energy policy now results, in part, from his ability to empower others to take the lead on major legislative issues related to energy. In this way, the speaker’s priorities can become the conference’s priorities. What those priorities will be, though, is the big question. But it’s first worth understanding why former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) energy and climate policy positions were important.
When McCarthy was minority leader last Congress, he chose to promote small-government solutions to issues moderate voters care about, such as climate change—a strategy that paid off. While climate-Republicans performed well in the 2022 midterms, more traditionally conservative candidates endorsed by former President Donald Trump underperformed.
As speaker, McCarthy empowered the former ranking member of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), to chair the Elected Leadership Committee (an assignment that comes and goes, but more than anything confirms the member’s role in leadership). Graves worked to get much of his climate and energy permitting reform ideas through the debt limit deal, while other Republican priorities from Rep. Steve Scalise’s (R-La.) H.R. 1 did not make it through.
Johnson, by contrast, has not staked out the sort of approach McCarthy had. Much of Johnson’s position is currently characterized through the lens of old quotes or campaign donations in his heavily oil-and-gas-focused state, as well as the recent passage of a new bill that attempts to cut some Inflation Reduction Act’s (IRA) subsidies (and as R Street has noted, much of these subsidies would act as a wealth transfer from taxpayers to wealthy Americans). But given that Republicans have always been unified in trying to unwind the IRA’s growing cost, Johnson doesn’t represent a policy shift in this regard.
The important takeaway is that, given McCarthy was one of the first Republicans in party leadership to push for new policy that expressly engaged climate change, there is very little chance that his successor (regardless of if it was Johnson or someone else) would have the same level of enthusiasm. The speakership shift also puts a damper on key priorities McCarthy held, like permitting reform, which are heavily intertwined with climate policy.
It is also important to keep in mind that the Conservative Climate Caucus is still a large and growing wing of House Republicans, so even though they are united behind Johnson as speaker, there are still many Republicans in the House keen to remain engaged on climate change—and the influence they may have with Johnson is still unknown.
All in all, the House is shifting from a pro-climate policy Republican speaker from a blue state to a more traditionally conservative one from a very red oil-and-gas state. McCarthy’s priorities may not get as much help under Johnson’s tenure, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will go away. It remains to be seen how much Johnson will want to engage on climate issues.