2022 has been a memorable year when it comes to energy costs. Soaring gas prices dominated both politics and pocketbooks in the early part of this summer, and presaged a similarly expensive winter heating season. While oil and natural gas prices have come down significantly since they peaked, the cost of both are still much higher than they were at this time last year thanks to the impact on energy prices from the war in Ukraine, combined with the highest inflation seen in decades. To make matters worse, the Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a cold, snowy fall and winter.
All of that formed the backdrop when I saw the headline, “Republicans Begin Submitting Petitions to Force an Energy Assistance Special Session.” I was prepared to blast the state GOP for being so heartless as to attempt to cut energy assistance right before winter began. But then something unexpected happened: I actually read the article. I was shocked to find that not only were Republicans advocating for the Low Income Household Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), but calling for an increase in funding.
Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the program needs more money. But actually increasing the funding seems to have reversed the traditional roles that the parties inhabit.
The difference is how the parties think it should be funded. Republicans are calling for a special session of the legislature, where they propose that $120 million be moved from other state programs into the LIHEAP fund. Democrats have balked at this plan, suggesting instead that the federal government may provide additional funding later in the year (both of Connecticut’s US senators and Rep. Joe Courtney have signed a letter requesting more money from Congress).
The LIHEAP seems like the kind of no-brainer program that both parties would be willing to support through compromise. The LIHEAP began in 1981 to help low-income families afford heating and cooling costs, avoiding the “heat or eat” dilemma that working people and those on fixed incomes often encounter. During the pandemic, funding for the program increased dramatically in response to millions of Americans losing their jobs. That extra funding is set to expire, decreasing the state’s annual allotment from $140 million last year to $79 million this year.
I understand that both parties have political motives when considering the best way to fund LIHEAP. Republicans are trying to hammer home the idea that Lamont and his allies have made living in Connecticut too expensive, and passing “emergency” funding to keep families warm plays into that messaging. On the other hand, Democrats have pushed the argument that the state is in its best fiscal state in years under their stewardship, and that there’s no need to spend state money if federal dollars are incoming.
What’s particularly interesting about this political spat is how the parties have swapped the traditional roles we’ve come to associate them with. Republicans have been known for years as the party of fiscal responsibility, more eager to cut social welfare programs than gather signatures to expand them. Democrats have typically been in favor of spending more money to expand the social safety net, not focusing on budget surpluses. The situation reveals that the governing philosophy of the two major parties is subject to change when the political winds blow in a new direction.
While the fight over LIHEAP funding is most likely a one-off battle in an election year, it illustrates how the parties change over time. People often wonder how the party of Lincoln and emancipation came to oppose almost all major civil rights legislation in the 20th century. It was the result of many tiny inflection points like this one, where suddenly the political orthodoxy was turned on its head for electoral expediency. The same thing happened when Democrats, who passed the Great Society social program expansions a generation before, then passed welfare reform in the 1990s.
Hopefully, LIHEAP will receive the money it needs to ensure that Connecticut’s families have the help they need to stay warm this winter. This may simply pass as a cynical game of chicken in a contentious election year, or we may look back at this as one of those pivotal moments where politics shifted and a new status quo was established. Only time will tell.