Political Theater Becomes a Messy Political Spectacle

US Capitol with its power plant in foreground (via Flickr's Matthew Hurst)

Take Action! Call your Senators today.

It must have sounded like a reasonable idea when polluters first pressed the newly elected Congress to come to their aid.  I suppose it sounded something like this:

Congress shouldn’t leave the implementation of the Clean Air Act to the Environmental Protection Agency.  After all, the Environmental Protection Agency’s mission of protecting public health and the environment is inconvenient because we may have to invest in cleaner technologies. By the way, don’t forget the one billion dollars — yes, billion with a “b” — we spent in the last 2 years on campaign contributions and lobbying.  Beating up on EPA will make good political theater — the kids back home will love it.

Political theater has now become a messy political spectacle in the Senate that shows why Congress should stick to legislation and why our Constitution vests in the president the responsibility to ensure that laws such as the Clean Air Act are “faithfully executed.”  Polluters are in such a rush to hamstring the Environmental Protection Agency that they couldn’t bother with hearings and a full debate.  Instead, they want to add their ideas to any legislation that already has bipartisan support and is moving — in this case, the Small Business bill currently being acted on in the Senate.

Senators today will choose whether to let the Environmental Protection Agency do its job. Alternatively, they can take up the cause of special interests by voting for the amendment to block EPA from fully implementing the Clean Air Act and addressing carbon pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes.  Did I say “the amendment?”  Oops.  That would be four different amendments to interfere with EPA in different ways. Looks like with all the different interests that have a stake in how the Clean Air Act is implemented — oil companies, coal companies, manufacturers, the Farm Bureau — it’s not so simple for Congress to take over the regulatory process itself.

Oil companies, which can currently spew unlimited amounts of carbon pollution from their refineries, went to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky, and asked him to advance a plan that would get straight to the heart of the matter — an amendment that would erases science and essentially declare that climate change isn’t happening.  If climate change doesn’t exist, it’s not a threat to public health or wildlife, and EPA can’t require big polluters to reduce emissions.

I know Congress generates alot of hot air, but I didn’t know they could change the laws of physics and chemistry with a good old fashioned federal proclamation:

  • Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is advancing his own plan to help his home-state coal industry.  His amendment would issue a “stop work” order for EPA for two  years.  Coal companies know that once passed, “temporary” stop work orders easily become perpetual, as happened for more than a decade as auto makers successfully blocked efforts to improve fuel economy standards with the same delays added to bills year after year.
  • Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) continues to work on a more nuanced amendment that also has some form of a 2-year delay as she tries to figure out how to help manufacturers.
  • Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) has his own formula for steering EPA, with a particular emphasis on agricultural interests.

While these special interest measures collide on the Senate floor, constituents back home are looking at all of them with disgust.  Voters didn’t go to the polls last year worried that our air is too clean or our water too safe to drink. To the contrary, a recent poll confirms that 77% of Americans, including 61% of Republicans, believe that “Congress should let the EPA do its job.” Only 18% believe that “Congress should block the EPA from updating pollution safeguards.” There has already been a backlash against similar polluter-backed efforts in the House.

As they witness the mess polluters have created for them, perhaps Congress will now have a little more respect for EPA’s 40-year track record of carefully studying issues, weighing all the evidence, and issuing prudent regulations that have dramatically reduced air pollution while promoting economic growth.  Over the past forty years, since the Clean Air Act was enacted and subsequently amended with overwhelming bipartisan support, EPA’s implementation of the Clean Air Act has spurred $2 trillion in annual economic benefits, largely by stopping lung disease and other health threats before they happen.  The benefits have outweighed the costs of installing cleaner technologies by more than 30 to 1.

I am hopeful that enough Senators will look at this mess and vote to let EPA do its job that each of these measures will fail today. But polluters aren’t done, and Big Oil has alot more money to spend on campaign cash and lobbying.  So we must all keep up the fight and let Congress know we are watching.  And we need the help of President Obama, who has been disappointingly silent on these attacks.

Call your Senators today and tell them to let the Environmental Protection Agency do its job.