Will Obama get BTU’d by Gore’s Carbon Tax?

More detail on Gore’s previous attempt to get a carbon tax levied on Americans. His hated “British Thermal Unit Tax” or BTU Tax became so loathed it entered the political vocabulary as a euphemism for giving a lot and getting nothing in return (in other words, getting royally screwed over).

As I pointed out in a previous post, Gore’s current success in pushing Obama towards a carbon tax is not his first attempt. Previously, as VP in the Clinton administration he had pushed strenuously for a “British Thermal Units Tax” or “Energy Tax”. Though Clinton slammed the suggestion when it first proposed, others in the administration saw it as a way to give Gore “enough rope” and persuaded Clinton to let Gore try to shepherd the bill through congress. Not in the hope that it would pass – very few people expected it to – but in the hope that it would irrevocably weaken Gore’s standing in the White House. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen thought that Gore’s proposed carbon tax would be “a political and administrative nightmare” if it were ever introduced.

Sure enough, the proposed bill was introduced first to the House, where hapless Representatives were pressurized into signing it, and then to the Senate where it was shot down in flames, as senior staff members in the Clinton administration always knew it would be. The Carbon Tax BTU Bill now a flaming wreckage, Gore’s position in the White House was considerably weakened, and everyone (except Gore) went home a bit happier.

Reporter Bob Woodward – famous for his “Watergate” expose of Nixon gives us some of the background to Gore’s first attempt at a carbon tax. His account is interesting for the way it reveals that whilst most senior Democrats thought the idea was “loopy” they realised that Gore was behind the idea and were happy to let him run himself into the ground over it.

In his book The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House Woodward cites the reaction of the powerful Democrat Senator Patrick Moynihan, Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to Gore’s proposal:

Over the last several months Moynihan had grown increasingly disturbed about the all-fuels BTU tax . . . With all the tinkering to satisfy special interests, the tax had grown so complicated that it would be an invitation to evasion. By one staff estimate, the BTU tax would add volumes to the U.S. tax code.

Bob Woodward, The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House

As the implications of Gore’s carbon tax begin to be realised by senior Democrats, more and more of them began privately voicing their horror at the idea to Clinton. Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee promised defiance to Gore’s BTU tax declaring “I won’t cut the throats of my people“. John Breaux, the Democrat Senator from Louisiana trashed the idea as “downright goofy“.

Gore’s first crack at a carbon tax, based on the British Thermal Unit, came to be known in the White House as the hated British Thermal Unit Tax, or BTU Tax. Indeed, so despised and so politically disastrous was the fallout from Gore’s BTU Carbon tax that it even entered the political vernacular. To “get BTU’d” was to get nothing for something. Keith Hennessey explains:

In 1993 then-Vice President Gore led the Clinton Administration to propose increasing the taxation of energy. Called the “BTU tax,” the Administration proposed to tax the energy content of a fuel source, measured in British Thermal Units (BTUs).

The three vote margin of victory suggests that House Democratic leaders had to twist the arms of reluctant Democrat Members to vote aye. In this scenario, if you are a House Democrat who does not have a strong view on the substance but is nervous about the politics of voting for higher energy taxes, you would like the bill to pass (so that your leaders get what they want and stop pressuring you) without your vote (so that you don’t give your opponent back home an effective line of attack).

Those nervous House Democrats who had voted for the bill with the BTU tax had the worst of all worlds. They had cast a costly political vote for no policy benefit.

A phrase soon entered the legislative vernacular. Senate Democrats had “BTUd” House Democrats.

Keith Hennessey: Will House Democrats Get BTU’d on Climate Change?

Given the history of Gore’s carbon tax, a tax so hated that it gave rise to a slang expression “to get BTU’d”, to get screwed over, the question now surely is “Will Obama also allow himself to get BTU’d by Gore’s carbon tax?”

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