In 2009, the U.S. House debated a controversial pollution control bill called “cap and trade.”
The idea was to set limits on large-scale pollutants, then award credits to companies that kept their emissions under the caps. Companies over the caps could buy the credits instead of cutting emissions.
Supporters, including some Republicans, said it was a free market approach to reducing pollution and slowing climate change.
But the bill put Rep. Ike Skelton in a tough spot. His increasingly conservative Missouri constituents were deeply skeptical of climate change and worried about higher utility bills. And rumors of a strong Republican opponent in 2010 were everywhere.
At the same time, Skelton was a member of House leadership — chairman of the Armed Services Committee, a position that helped him protect the huge military presence in his 4th District. Speaker Nancy Pelosi would expect his loyalty on a close vote.
In the end, Skelton voted yes. He later defended the vote on its merits, but he must have realized it could cost him dearly at the polls the following year.
And for what? Cap and trade had little chance of actually becoming law. Eventually the Senate declined to take it up. Skelton’s vote turned out to be symbolic, fodder only for a potential campaign commercial against him.
So a 17-term House career faced its end in part because of a meaningless vote, cast to satisfy Pelosi’s environmental left wing.
When Skelton died this week, some noted the fading influence of his political type, the socially conservative Democrat. Less noticed, though, was how the government had changed under Skelton’s feet.
Trading votes to protect constituents was once routine in the House. And voters understood this: Ike helps Pelosi, we get stealth bombers at Whiteman Air Force Base.
Today, ideology trumps accomplishment.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, Skelton’s replacement, represents thousands of farmers, just as he did. After years of delay, those farmers still lack a new farm bill.
Why? Because farm state Republicans and urban Democrats can’t work out a trade over agricultural subsidies and funding for food stamps. Compromise is now less important than anti-Washington jeremiads.
This puzzled Skelton. His House negotiated and created laws, with less concern for talk shows and show votes.
At the end, though, and perhaps to his surprise, voters preferred Hartzler’s approach.
So let’s mark Ike’s passing with a moment of silence for his career and for the government he knew. We won’t see either for some time to come.