The Build Back Better Act Explainer

Everything you wanted (and didn’t want) to know about the reconciliation bill

September 24, 2021

Support federal climate action

Possibly our best chance to fund meaningful climate action and achieve a carbon-zero electric grid by 2035 was introduced in Congress this September: The federal Build Back Better Act (AKA the reconciliation bill), now awaiting a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

This bill includes $3.5 TRILLION in funding for climate solutions all across the U.S. with some big, positive impacts expected in the Northwest. 

This is an especially big deal as it comes on the heels of the latest IPCC report which makes it pretty darn clear that we need to act NOW to have hope for a livable future. 

Negotiations around the bill are moving forward and it’s likely we’ll see a slightly different version once it heads to the Senate, but right now, we’re asking our lawmakers to get on board with the bill and help to get across the finish line.

What the heck is a reconciliation bill?

Dust off your polyester shirts and bell-bottoms, because we’re heading back to the 1970s when the Budget Act was enacted. At first, this act was just a way for the House and Senate to reconcile numbers in the budget, send those numbers off to their corresponding committees, and carry out the taxing and spending in that budget. If your eyes just glazed over, we promise we’re getting to the juicy part (if you consider political loopholes juicy). 

The special thing about this reconciliation is that it only requires 50 Senate votes to move forward, avoiding the threat of a filibuster which requires 60 votes to overcome. And Congress pretty quickly picked this up as a way to get legislation through that would otherwise never make it out of the Senate. Reconciliation has been used to pass 22 bills by both parties — from the massive tax cuts in the Trump era to the Affordable Care Act under President Obama.

Today, because Democrats have 50 seats in the Senate, as well as the tie-breaking Vice Presidential vote, reconciliation becomes a way to get a bill on the President’s desk without a single vote from Senate Republicans. However, that requires all Senate Dems making the vote and, well, when it comes to the Build Back Better Act, some Democratic Senators (particularly Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia) have made claims that they won’t support it.

What about the infrastructure bill passed earlier this year? Is this different?

Back in August, the Senate passed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill in a 69-30 vote, which was about $550 billion more than the Senate was already planning to spend over the next eight years on new infrastructure. 

While these numbers might seem humongous, they’re actually not that big in the grand scheme of things like, ya know, solving climate change — which will only get more expensive the longer we wait. So when the infrastructure bill headed back to the House during the August recess, House Democrats basically said, “we can do better,” and made plans to pass this bill ONLY if the Senate also approved the broader spending in the Build Back Better Act. 

So now, the infrastructure bill is sitting in the House waiting for a vote, while the Build Back Better Act heads to the Senate by September 27th for a vote. Everyone is waiting on everyone to see what everyone will do.

It’s a freaking nail-biter as we stand on the precipice of a serious climate catastrophe. 

Okay, so how does this weird, giant bill help fund climate solutions?

This bill includes SO MUCH good stuff for the planet, the country, and for Washington state. Because the House and Senate are using the reconciliation bill to get this work through, you’ll notice a lot of tax and budget-style funding. Here’s a quick run-down of some of the most-anticipated pieces: 

  • Fund Climate Resilience:
    • $1 billion in federal funds to replace or remove culverts to improve salmon passage.
    • $400 million in federal funds for community-based restoration programs that include the removal of fish passage barriers.
    • $89 million in grants to the Environmental Protection Agency to assist in restoring Puget Sound.
    • Billions of dollars to the Forest Service to mitigate wildfire risk.
    • $492 million to map and forecast inland and coastal flooding.
    • $50 million to predict, model and forecast wildfires.
    • $216 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for climate resilience and adaptation for tribal nations.
  • End more than $120 billion in tax handouts to the fossil fuel industry.
  • Create the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) which in 2023 would subject every electricity generator in the country to an annual accounting of carbon emissions, and then send federal payments to those that increase their share of clean energy by 4 percent per year and charge penalties to those that don’t.
  • Impose a methane fee for oil and gas that would hold individual companies responsible for their own leaks and excess methane pollution.
  • Establish $9 billion for home energy retrofits — $2,000 rebates for projects that save 20 percent relative to average energy use, or $4,000 for 35 percent. (Both numbers are doubled for low-income projects.)
  • Another $9 billion for home electrification — $3,000 per heat pump with greater than 27,500 BTU-per-hour capacity and $4,000 if it’s cold-climate rated; $6,000/$7,000 for low-income projects. For heat pumps under 27,500 BTU/hour, it’s $1,500/$2,000; $3,000/$3,500 for low-income projects. In that same section are rebates of $1,250 per heat-pump water heater, $3,000 per smart electric panel, and other, smaller grants for electric stoves and dryers.
  • Direct 40 percent of funding to frontline communities
  • $9 billion for electricity transmission, including funds for the Department of Energy’s transmission planning and modeling capabilities and for state transmission planning processes.

This all sounds amazing, what’s the holdup?

As mentioned above, in addition to just about every Republican Senator being unwilling to get behind this bill, a few Democratic Senators have been toying around with voting no on this version of the bill as well, and that’s going to make it very difficult to get the infrastructure bill paired with the reconciliation bill onto President Biden’s desk. Ugh, politics

It doesn’t help that the fossil fuel industry is throwing an absolute hissy fit and lobbying like crazy right now, claiming they’re being unfairly targeted by the Build Back Better Act. But is it really “unfair” that lawmakers are seeking to limit the damage done after a single industry spent decades heating the climate, funding disinformation campaigns to confuse the heck out of the public, all while collecting trillions of dollars in government subsidies to keep your dirty industry churning out profits for shareholders?

Why contact our lawmakers? 

If you live in the Northwest, you might already know that our lawmakers plan to support the Build Back Better Act, and even had a hand in crafting some of its features specifically to support our region. So why bother sending them an email? For starters, it always helps lawmakers to know they have the support of their constituents. As negotiations get underway, we want to make sure that our elected officials aren’t making any assumptions about where we stand as a community. Secondly, it’s important to use that activist muscle regularly. If this vote becomes a huge mess on September 27th, we need to know who we can mobilize and ensure the climate solutions put forward in this bill are carried out one way or another — whether that means turning our focus to the state level, or getting ultra focused on our city and county communities and the progress we can make right here at home. 

So, flex that muscle and send an email to your lawmakers. Whether you live in the Northwest or somewhere else in the U.S., our elected officials need to hear from us now more than ever.

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