The National Guard slept in the basement and wire barriers surrounded the Capitol when UO law professor Greg Dotson began work as chief counsel for the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in early 2021.
It was just after the January 6 riot and the building was still closed to the public after the violent attack on Congress.
Dotson was not new to the halls of Congress. He spent two decades in the House of Representatives and was the chief energy and environmental officer on the House Energy and Trade Committee. But it was the most partisan environment he’d seen in all his years on the Hill.
And he was there to address one of the most partisan issues: climate change. The committee he would advise is responsible for legislation in the areas of environmental protection, national climate change policies and federal programs for infrastructure investments. While the committee’s chairman, US Senator Tom Carper, is known for championing bipartisanship, given the 50-50 split in the Senate, it was obvious to Dotson that getting much, especially a meaningful one, would be a challenge Climate change legislation.
But just over a year later, Dotson notes that during his Senate tenure, Congress passed historic, bipartisan legislation that included new climate and environmental initiatives.
“There is no bipartisan agreement that we urgently need action on climate change, despite the alarm bells from everyone who is paying attention,” he said. “However, the Senate convened to enact the most significant infrastructure bill in the country’s history, and this bill contains some important foundational measures for a zero-carbon future.”
Dotson points to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Biden signed into law in November 2021. The bipartisan legislation includes a number of climate, clean energy and environmental justice components.
An example is the funding of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and electric buses to reduce emissions and promote clean energy vehicles. The new law also aims to modernize the power grid and invest in infrastructure that is more resilient to extreme weather and climate changes.
And it included a number of additional investments in environmental justice, such as clean water programs and pollution remediation initiatives.
Dotson will discuss the Infrastructure Act in a panel on Congress and Climate Change May 24 at 3:30 p.m. in Room 175 of the Knight Law Center. He will be joined on the podium by Provost Patrick Phillips and Dean of Law School and Dave Frohnmayer Chair in Leadership and Law, Marcilynn Burke. Advance registration is requested.
One of the other big bills Dotson points to is the American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed in March 2021. The legislation primarily targeted the public health and economic fallout of the pandemic, but also included some important environmental initiatives, such as funding for environmental equity and air quality programs to address the differential impacts of climate change and pollution on low-income communities.
“We can’t afford to wait for climate change,” Dotson said. “Congress has made a good step forward, but we really need much more meaningful action to address the climate crisis.”
Dotson’s role on the committee was important. As chief counsel, he not only advised the committee on climate policy, but also on parliamentary procedures to explore options for legislation by the polarized Senate. Like using budget rules to push climate change solutions that can be passed with a simple majority in the Senate, rather than requiring a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes.
The committee used this approach with the Build Back Better Act, a proposed $500 billion budget to fight climate change. Although this bill passed the US House of Representatives, it stalled in the Senate, just short of the 50 votes needed.
“Polarization because of climate change is a powerful obstacle,” Dotson said. “Every elected official should want to avoid the catastrophic effects of unchecked climate change, but until they do, what is legally possible will really be defined through the application of obscure Senate rules.”
Dotson is now back on campus where he will continue to focus on combating climate change through his research and teaching. Dotson is a faculty member at the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center, where he directs the Energy Law and Policy Project.
—By Emily Halnon, University Communications