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Opinion: How Joe Manchin may have prevented a government shut down — caused by his own bill

As part of a deal, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin got his permitting reform bill attached to an important budget bill. If Congress voted against it, the nation would have shut down. Now, that won’t happen

SHARE Opinion: How Joe Manchin may have prevented a government shut down — caused by his own bill
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks during a news conference.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks during a news conference Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at the Capitol in Washington.

Mariam Zuhaib, Associated Press

(Editor’s note: This editorial has been updated from an earlier version to reflect Sen. Joe Manchin’s decision Tuesday afternoon to withdraw his permitting bill from the Senate’s continuing resolution)

Otto Von Bismark was the first to say it. “Politics is the art of the possible … .” 

But the 19th century Prussian and German statesman got it only half right. Sometimes, politics makes the impossible so complicated it can’t, and probably shouldn’t, happen.

That’s what appears to be the case in Washington right now.

The United States has been in need of permitting reform for decades. Energy projects languish for years while legal challenges and environmental reviews drag on, irritating all but those whose livelihoods depend on challenges and reviews.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who doesn’t always follow his party’s agenda, understands this frustration. He wants to jump start the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would deliver gas from his home state to the nation’s Southeast, and which is being hampered by court challenges.

Not long ago, Manchin was the only Democrat standing in the way of a huge climate, health care and tax bill, misnamed the Inflation Reduction Act. So, in exchange for his vote, he got assurances from leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, to move his permitting reform bill along.

The perfect opportunity came this week. The government will shut down on midnight Friday unless the Senate passes a continuing resolution, which would extend current funding levels to mid-December. So, Schumer stuck Manchin’s bill onto the continuing resolution.

If the Senate doesn’t pass it, the government can’t operate. 

Although they have long wanted such a bill, many Republicans were less than anxious to vote for this version. They didn’t like parts of it and would prefer to be able to negotiate a better version.

Democrats had recently become fans of permitting reform because the same delaying tactics used against fossil fuel projects are being used to delay green energy projects. But some of them were balking at Manchin’s bill because it would help the other side, as well.

As a result of the contention, Manchin gave up late Tuesday and agreed to remove his bill from the funding proposal, paving the way for the government to stay in business.

The only thing crystal clear in all of this is that this is no way to pass a bill of such importance. We understand that the art of political horse trading is older than the republic, but the nation’s ability to fund its government should not depend on passage of a bill that ought to be debated, negotiated and compromised, separate from all other considerations.

Now, we hope, this can happen.

Manchin’s bill would have hastened the approval process for energy projects, setting a two-year target for environmental reviews. It would have ordered the president to select 25 projects as priorities, pushing them along a fast review process. States and tribes would have had less power than they currently enjoy to veto projects because of water quality issues.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would have had power to override any state’s objections to transmission lines, regardless of whether these would directly benefit them.

Conservatives complained that, of the president’s 25 projects, only five would have needed to be for fossil fuel projects or for biofuels. And as The Wall Street Journal noted, nothing in the law would have compelled federal agencies to stick to the two year deadline for reviews. 

As for liberals, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont had said the bill would make it easier “to destroy the planet and pollute the environment.”

Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska summed this political quagmire up perfectly when he told The Wall Street Journal, “Here’s the dirty little secret in my view on the Senate. There are a lot of senators who know that permitting reform is critical to whatever issue you care about — oil, gas, renewables. … Permitting reform is the key to revitalizing America.”

Bismarck might say it sounds as if all sides ought to be able to come together to make a workable solution possible. Now that the bill is no longer attached to an unrelated funding plan, that might happen.