I was sitting around a table with about a dozen other Food & Water Watch organizers last week, talking about what it will take to pass aggressive climate legislation through Congress in the next few years. Most of us are in our 20’s and 30’s and someone pointed out that we should think critically about the way our generation views Congress.
I’m 26, so my peers and I have only known a dysfunctional Congress that forced multiple government shutdowns, and whose members cared more about their billionaire donors than the people in their districts. During my time as an organizer, I’ve operated under the assumption that ambitious federal legislation was necessary to address social, racial, environmental and economic injustice, but that it would be nearly impossible to actually pass and implement.
"Pundits, moderate politicians, and even other environmental groups will want to compromise early and often, but we know from past experience that if we hold the line, we can win."
My colleagues at Food & Water Watch have helped introduce legislation like the Off Fossil Fuels Act and the WATER Act, both visionary bills that would move our country to 100% clean energy and invest billions in critical water infrastructure improvements. Most people understood that, at least in the short term, these bills weren’t going to pass. But they were still valuable tactics to employ in a broader campaign. Legislation is a useful tool to organize around, to recruit volunteers, to build a base in key districts, develop organizational allies, and begin to shape the national debate around key issues in a way that might make wins at the state or local level more likely.
Reassessing After A Generation of Dysfunction
But previous generations have had a much different experience. Between 1963 and 1970, my parents saw at least 6 landmark bills passed in Congress: the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Economic Opportunity Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and National Environmental Policy Act, to name a few. These bills did not pass because segregationist and pro-corporate lawmakers “saw the light” on the issues. They passed because brave and dedicated organizers made it their mission to win aggressive federal legislation that would make material improvements in the lives of their neighbors.
That approach is now required to pass federal climate legislation. With a large class of newly elected members in the House of Representatives and growing calls for climate action, a window is opening to get this done. We need to set a goal of actually passing a bill that moves our country to 100% clean energy in the next 10-15 years, stops all new fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure projects, and provides for a just transition to protect impacted communities and creates millions of good jobs. Whether it’s the Off Fossil Fuels Act, a Green New Deal, or a bill by some other name, building support for and passing this legislation must be considered our goal, not just a useful organizing tactic.
Takeaways for Our Movement
Thinking of legislation as a goal, rather than a tactic, has several concrete implications that should guide our work.
- Ask for what we need, not what we think we can get: the most recent science makes it very clear what we need to do in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Fossil fuels must be left in the ground, which means stopping all new fracking, mining, pipelines and exports. We must also build a justice-based economy that works for everyone, powered by 100% clean energy and millions of good jobs. This needs to happen fast: the latest science says we have about 12 years. All of this must be reflected in the legislation we’re supporting, and we’ll need to stick to our guns. Pundits, moderate politicians, and even other environmental groups will want to compromise early and often, but we know from past experience that if we hold the line, we can win.
- Understand the legislative process: Just as important as the legislation itself is the process by which it moves. When legislation is a tactic, it doesn’t matter which committee the sponsors are on or who testifies at a hearing – there probably won’t be one. But when legislation is the goal, those things matter a great deal. We need to know the relevant committees inside and out, and have champions on the inside that are in a position to move the bill through the process.
- Organize in strategic districts: There are probably 60 or 70 Democrats in the House (maybe more) who would currently co-sponsor an aggressive climate bill, if you include the incumbents who sponsored the Off Fossil Fuels Act and the newly elected members who pledged their support for this bill or a Green New Deal. But these members are the low-hanging fruit, and it will take a lot more work to get a majority of both houses to vote yes. We need to identify key districts to organize in and get to work right away building support on the ground. The strategy in these districts won’t all be the same, so we need to develop an approach that is specific to each one.