Democrats pitched a civilian climate corps on Wednesday they said would help solve youth unemployment while creating “shovel-ready” jobs that cut carbon emissions by the U.S. economy.
The program, based on the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), would put young Americans to work on green energy-related projects. Participants would be paid $15 an hour or more for weatherizing buildings, fighting forest fires and capping oil wells.
“We’re at the dawn of a new era where we have a climate crisis, but we can solve it,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and co-author of the Green New Deal. “This moment provides us the opportunity to [get] corp members … out in the world doing crucial work, preventing and responding to the climate crisis from Salem, Oregon, to Salem, Massachusetts.”
Backers of the program say it unites urban and rural communities. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, argued an emboldened climate corps could help fight the burgeoning forest fires that have devastated areas across the western U.S. in recent years.
Some, like Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, view the proposal as part of a broader economic recovery package to help young workers rebound after the coronavirus pandemic.
According to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate for those between the ages of 16-to-25 was nearly 10% in June — down from a high of more than 27% in April 2020 — but above the overall jobless rate of 5.8%.
“It cannot be understated how important and how critical a civilian climate corps is not just for the preservation of our lands and our planet, but also for young people in the underserved areas across the country,” said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez.
The program, which was once exclusively backed by progressive firebrands like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders, has picked up support among moderates. More centrist Democratic Sens. Christopher Coons of Delaware and Robert Casey of Pennsylvania are two notable supporters.
At the moment, President Biden is proposing to spend upwards of $10 billion on the project. Advocates, however, want more.
Mr. Coons, a top ally of the White House on Capitol Hill, called Mr. Biden’s $10 billion offer a “placeholder.”
“My view [is] it should … be significantly larger,” Mr. Coons said.
It is unclear, though, if even Mr. Biden’s opening bid will garner sufficient bipartisan support, especially given the 50-50 split in the Senate and the hurdle of the filibuster.
Some GOP lawmakers have already lambasted the notion of a modern CCC as a “jobs program” for environmentalists. Others question if the program is needed now when there are ample private-sector jobs these days that employers are struggling to fill.
“I’m all for paying the youth, but there are so many jobs that are unfilled right now,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican and a noted deficit hawk. “Again, I’m not opposed to weatherization, that type of thing, but that doesn’t need to be a government program.”
And despite support from moderates like Mr. Casey and Mr. Coons, it is unclear if the corps will receive the backing of all 50 Democrats to pass the Senate via the budget reconciliation process, which allows some spending bills to pass with a simple majority.
Supporters indicated on Wednesday they were aware of the pitfalls ahead.
“What you do not want is … people sitting around without doing anything,” said Vermont’s Mr. Sanders, a self-described socialist who chairs the Senate Budget Committee. “So we better know what they’re doing.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez suggested that backers not get too bogged down by political calculations and remind people the federal government has done this kind of program before.
”I think what’s important is that sometimes when folks say, ’Oh, this is too ambitious, or this is too big, and it’s too unreasonable,’ that we reiterate that this world that we’re fighting for has already been here,” she said.