Will Climate Bill Give Us a National Building Code?

The Washington Post reports that the Waxman-Markey "cap-and-trade" bill is chock full of traditional command-and-control regulation, including measures that will create a national housing code for energy efficiency.

the bill also contains regulations on everything from light bulb standards to the specs on hot tubs, and it will reshape America's economy in dozens of ways that many don't realize.

Here is just one: The bill would give the federal government power over local building codes. It requires that by 2012 codes must require that new buildings be 30 percent more efficient than they would have been under current regulations. By 2016, that figure rises to 50 percent, with increases scheduled for years after that. With those targets in mind, the bill expects organizations that develop model codes for states and localities to fill in the details, creating a national code. If they don't, the bill commands the Energy Department to draft a national code itself.

States, meanwhile, would have to adopt the national code or one that achieves the same efficiency targets. Those that refuse will see their codes overwritten automatically, and they will be docked federal funds and carbon "allowances" -- valuable securities created elsewhere in the bill that give the holder the right to pollute and can be sold. The Energy Department also could enforce its code itself. Among other things, the policy would demonstrate the new leverage of allocation of allowances as a sort of carbon currency -- leverage this bill would be giving to Congress to direct state behavior.

As the Post notes, these sorts of provisions -- and there are many others in the 900-page bill -- undermine the supposed point of "cap-and-trade," which is achieve emission reductions in the most cost-effective fashion through the use of market transactions. As the Post asks, "if the point of cap-and-trade is to change market incentives, why does Congress, and not the market, need to dictate these changes?" Virginia Postrel comments

The editorial hints that these sorts of provisions have been inserted because the bill's authors are counting on fellow members of Congress not to read what they're voting on. They undoubtedly remember how easy it was to get Congress to ban incandescent light bulbs by sneaking a provision into the Bush-era energy bill.