In what will mark the first vote on Republican efforts to prevent EPA from reducing climate pollution, a House Energy subcommittee is expected today to take up legislation from Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). [See update at the bottom of post.] Their bill would amend the Clean Air Act to forbid consideration of CO2 or other greenhouse gases.
For Congress to intervene in the scientific determinations of a public health agency is, as far as I know, unprecedented. You might think there would be urgent and compelling reasons for politicians to support such a radical move. But you’d be wrong. The arguments Republicans have used in favor of it are transparently absurd, and only getting more so.
One of the most reasonable-sounding arguments is in fact one of the most ridiculous. As Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) put it, “it should be up to Congress, not the administration, to determine whether and how to regulate greenhouse gases.” I’m not sure why it’s so hard for people to understand this: Congress did determine that. It passed the Clean Air Act. The Obama administration is is legally obliged to regulate greenhouse gases under that Act, as affirmed in 2007 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
According to SCOTUS, carbon dioxide qualifies as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. That means EPA is required to determine whether it poses a threat to public health, and if so, to regulate it. In their endangerment finding, agency scientists determined, as has the entire worldwide scientific community, that CO2 does in fact pose a serious threat to public heath (a view shared by EPA chief Lisa Jackson’s Republican predecessor).
EPA is thus required by law to regulate CO2. That is the opposite of “overreach.” It is the definition of an executive-branch agency’s role. EPA has to do what Congress told it to do until Congress tells it to do something else. If Congress wants the agency not to regulate CO2, it has to amend the Clean Air Act to overturn EPA’s scientific finding. Even in an era when GOP radicalism is accepted as a fact of life, that’s a doozy of a precedent to set. “Politicians overruling scientists on a scientific question,” said Jackson, “would become part of this committee’s legacy.”
It’s true, and damning, and Upton knows it, which is why he and his cronies on the committee keep ludicrously insisting that his bill isn’t about science. They keep trying to draw attention back to an apocalyptic threat to the economy. That, however, is pure misdirection, a crude bit of three card monte.
For one thing, the bill says nothing about the economy. It overturns EPA’s science finding. It is incontrovertibly and straightforwardly about science. Not that Upton will ever stop saying otherwise.
For another thing, it is written into the text of the Clean Air Act that the agency is required to craft economically reasonable regulations. It must, by law, take costs and economic impacts into account. And it has: as a comprehensive new agency assessment revealed a few weeks ago, the Clean Air Act has created jobs, spurred innovation, and produced benefits that in 2020 will exceed costs by 30 to 1.
So EPA is barred by law from implementing regulations that have the devastating economic impacts Republicans are forecasting. That’s why the agency is treading lightly, focusing on modest energy-efficiency measures. The electric utilities — the ones who will be subject to the regulations — say: “We’re OK With the EPA’s New Air-Quality Regulations.” It’s about ideology, not economics.
The political and economic attacks on EPA are demonstrably bunk, but in post-truth politics, that is all but irrelevant. There are no longer broadly respected institutions that can adjudicate these things for voters. Republicans can lie with impunity, so why should they stop? I mean, they’re accusing an agency with no authority to tax of a “backdoor cap-and-trade energy tax.” If they can get away with that kind of black-is-white word salad, why not do it? All the incentives reward lying. It seems to be working!
Emboldened by the postmodern freedom he’s been granted, Upton is just getting more and more ridiculous. He said at a hearing the other day, “We are asking EPA for a time out.” (Meanwhile, his cosponsor in the Senate, James Inhofe, says the bill “stops cap-and-trade regulations from taking effect once and for all.” Kind of a permanent time out, I guess.) Upton said the other day that blocking regulations on electric power plants would lower the price of gasoline, which Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) rightly called “one of the most pathetically, economically invalid arguments ever made in human history.” Its pathetic invalidity will not stop Upton from saying it over and over again, and the press from dutifully passing it on.
One of the most ironic aspects of all this is that Inhofe is starting to look like the most honest politician around. He may be wrong about a great many things, but at least he’s not relentlessly trying to bullsh*t us about what he believes and what he’s really doing. He wants to bar EPA from ever addressing the problem of climate change, which he doesn’t believe exists. And that’s exactly what he says. Upton dissembles on climate change and misleads on EPA regs. He’s willing to kiss the Tea Party ring, but he doesn’t have the balls to stand up and take responsibility for it. When Inhofe’s making you look like a douchecanoe in comparison, it’s really time to starting looking in the mirror.
One final note, just to record how utterly surreal and inverted our political moment has become, from Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.): “Somehow, this administration has, whether deliberately or not, stumbled into a situation where it’s becoming very ideological and very partisan.”
Obeying the law: ideological and partisan. Overturning the scientific findings of a public health agency: jes’ folk! Welcome to Wonderland.
UPDATE: As expected, the Energy & Power subcommittee voted the bill through today. Next week, the bill goes to full committee, where it is expected to pass. Some time after that it will be taken up by the full House, where it is also expected to pass. It’s not clear whether it has a chance in the Senate, and if so, whether Obama plans to veto it. We’ll see.
Get Grist in your inbox