Thursday, June 27, 2013

Climate change and the dysfunctional Congress

 (Obama at Georgetown University, swiped from
Will his handkerchief become as iconic as Jimmy Carter's cardigan?)

President Obama spoke Tuesday on the issue of climate change, announcing a number of administration initiatives to combat it. The keystone is a coming executive order regulating carbon dioxide emissions by electric utilities. He also promised more federal support for alternative energies and financial assistance to cities threatened by rising sea levels. And he stated a vague and possibly insuperable standard for approving the Keystone XL Pipeline. More details and commentary is available all over the web, including the Atlantic Cities blog and Andrew Revikin's Dot Earth blog.

Reaction has been varied, depending on one's views of climate change and towards Obama himself. Congressional Republicans, unsurprisingly, have alleged Obama is waging a "war on coal." On the optimistic side, a New York Times op-ed Wednesday praised Obama's move as "a politically difficult step." A number of people concerned about all that carbon in the atmosphere--including Michael Wara of Stanford, who is quoted at length in the Dot Earth blog--are skeptical about Obama's commitment to the issue, and fear this is the latest round of sporadic attention with little concrete to show for it.

Assuming Obama's speech this week heralds substantive action, it's the right thing to do at the right time. But, as Jason Bordoff and Michael Levi point out in the Times op-ed linked above, it's a poor substitute for congressional action, say, to pass a cap-and-trade law on greenhouse gases. More broadly, it's the latest episode of presidents being forced--or feeling forced--to act on their own when Congress is deadlocked. Richard Nathan described, in The Administrative Presidency (1983), Richard Nixon's 1960s strategy to deal with a hostile Congress, which culminated in the regulatory reform efforts of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

An administrative, go-it-along presidency may be the short-term solution in this case, but it is bad in the long run. Our Constitution provides for checks and balances, on the grounds that one person acting alone is fraught with dangers. We get better deliberation when all the institutions of government are involved. And laws are more stable than executive orders; what can be promulgated with a stroke of a pen can be undone with a stroke of a pen.

But policy making through normal, constitutional channels can't happen if Congress doesn't work. That will require, for starters, Republicans in the House and Senate to take responsibility for policy making, and not to let coal interests, or their antipathy to Obama, or whatever else is blinding them to ever-higher piles of evidence that we are playing a dangerous game with energy consumption provide excuses to block everything.

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