The commentary following last week’s elections has largely been a variation on either of two themes: (1) how strong Republicans are now that they have secured majorities in both houses of Congress or (2) how correspondingly weak the Obama Administration will be for the remainder of its time in office when it comes to advancing its policy goals. This commentary may be true insofar as it relates to new legislation. (Even there, nothing will really change as the prospects for new legislation that the President can sign will be not much worse now than they have been in recent Congresses.) But when it comes to enforcement of laws that already on the books, President Obama holds the undisputed upper hand, and congressional Republicans remain effectively impotent.
Last night’s agreement between the United States and China to undertake significant cuts in greenhouse gas emission by 2030 illustrates that. Under the agreement, the United States will cut its emissions between 26 percent and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, while China will reach its peak greenhouse gas emission by 2030 or earlier. Since the United States and China are far and away the two largest national emitters of greenhouse gases, this agreement marks a huge step in the international effort to avoid the most dangerous impacts of global climate disruption. It also helps pave the way for the rest of the global community to undertake significant emissions reductions measures of their own as part of future international treaty negotiations.Full text
A few months back, President Obama visited several kids receiving treatment for asthma at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC. Afterwards, he reflected on the critical importance of environmental safeguards, such as those to limit ozone pollution, saying:
[E]very time America has set clear rules and better standards for our air, our water, and our children’s health—the warnings of the cynics have been wrong. They warned that doing something about the smog choking our cities, and acid rain poisoning our lakes, would kill business. It didn’t. Our air got cleaner, acid rain was cut dramatically, and our economy kept growing.
In just a short few weeks, Obama will have his first test of whether he’s prepared to follow through on those words, and frankly, to make good on his legal obligation to do so, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announces whether or not it will establish a more protective national standard to limit ozone air pollution. The agency is under a judicial order to complete its review of the current National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone and to propose strengthening it, if necessary, by December 1. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set the ozone NAAQS at a level “requisite to protect the public health” with “an adequate margin of safety.” That’s a standard that requires the agency to only consider public health and forbids it from considering polluters’ clean-up costs — not an accident of drafting, by the way, but rather a clear reflection that Congress intended for the EPA to make sure the nation’s air was safe to breathe.Full text
Last week brought a string of bad news as far as global climate disruption goes. The bummer parade began Sunday with the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Synthesis report, which painted the direst picture yet of the looming global climate disruption threat, finding that “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” Before it was possible for anyone to catch their breath, the mid-term election results delivered another punch to the environmental gut, as a wave of anti-environmental candidates emerged victorious, securing Republican control of the U.S. Senate and expanding their control of the U.S. House of Representatives. The cherry on top came when Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a politician best known for writing an entire book in which he dismissed climate disruption as the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”—confirmed that he would chair the Senate Committee that will conduct oversight on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) efforts to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Things look grim, but not all hope is lost for making meaningful progress on the issue of climate disruption. While a comprehensive bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is unlikely to emerge from Congress anytime soon, President Obama already has ample authority to tackle the largest emitters using the existing provisions of the Clean Air Act, as the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly confirmed. Fortunately, Obama is already putting that authority to good use with a pair of pending rules that would establish national performance standards to limit greenhouse gas emissions from future and existing fossil-fueled power plants. These rules make up one of the 13 essential regulatory actions highlighted in CPR’s recent Issue Alert on safeguards that the Obama Administration can and should implement before its term in office expires. By finalizing these regulatory actions, Obama can not only deliver significant benefits to the American public; he can also help secure his legacy on important public health, safety, and environmental issues.Full text
Last Sunday, the New York Times ran the best of dozens of stories about how President Obama will behave in the last quarter of his eight years in office. Veteran political reporters Peter Baker and Michael Shear wrote: “As the President’s advisers map out the next two years, they have focused on three broad categories: agenda items he can advance without Congress, legislation that might emerge from a newfound spirit of compromise with Republicans, and issues that Mr. Obama can promote even without hope of passage as a way to frame the party’s core beliefs heading into 2016.” Spinning this message with his usual pungency, long-time adviser David Axelrod declared: “What he can’t do and won’t do is put his feet up on the desk and cross days off the calendar.”
The world is unlikely to leave the President any space for malingering, and his most vehement congressional critics are likely to attack him with such fervor that the faint path toward legislative compromise vanishes. Given these harsh realities, what the President can and should do to build an affirmative legacy is to accomplish well-organized executive actions that would protect public health, ensure the safety of workers and consumers, and preserve the environment.
His harshest congressional critics are only marginally relevant to such an initiative. They’ll keep screeching about the outrage of the Obama Imperial Presidency, and may even get their act together to pass appropriations riders to kill executive actions they intensely dislike. With his veto pen at the ready, though, the President has the power to drive right through such obstacles, earning applause from every quarter except the regulated industries that already treat him with disdain.
Today, CPR is releasing a comprehensive new Issue Alert that sets out an affirmative agenda of the 13 essential regulatory actions the Obama Administration could and should accomplish with the active participation of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, DOL Secretary Thomas Perez, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx, and under the leadership of a specially appointed senior White House point person. The Issue Alert, entitled Barack Obama’s Path to Progress in 2015-16: Thirteen Essential Regulatory Actions, explains how President Obama could save tens of thousands of lives lost annually as a result of harmful air pollution, avoid crippling diseases from asthma to severe food poisoning, protect children as young as twelve from tobacco poisoning, clear the lungs of hundreds of thousands of workers who needlessly inhale sharp particles of silica dust, and restore America’s great waters now plagued by ruinous dead zones.Full text
One curse of being a two-term president is that in your last two years, you must endure a conversation about whether you’re still relevant. For Barack Obama, that conversation is about to go kick into high gear. The pundits will observe, correctly, that his legislative agenda has little chance of moving through the new Congress, although that’s been true since 2011, of course.
So what is the path to progress for Barack Obama in these last two years of his administration? By what means can he add to his legacy, one that includes monumental health care reform, saving the economy, salvaging the automobile industry, subjecting the financial sector to some much needed regulation, and more? And how can anything of use be accomplished with a Congress dead-set against cooperation?
Actually, it’s quite straightforward, and we’ve been urging it on him for a couple years now. The President needs to follow up on his oft-uttered commitment to use executive power to do the people’s business. He doesn’t need to strain the boundaries of his authority one bit. He simply needs to send the clear message to the various departments of government, particularly those engaged in regulation, to get moving. And he needs to make sure that his own White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs contributes to the effort.Full text
Today, brave workers at a Wayne Farms poultry slaughterhouse have a reason to celebrate a milestone in their struggle for justice. With help from lawyers at the Southern Poverty Law Center, they filed a complaint with OSHA in April. They blew the whistle on conditions that included dangerous work speeds that caused serious injuries, as well as denying subsequent medical treatment, and the firing of workers who reported their concerns.
The agency released some results from its inspection, proposing significant fines against Wayne Farms for the deplorable conditions the workers continue to face.
After ringing its hands for nigh on four years, EPA has at last coughed up a final coal ash rule. Of course, no one but the White House staff will know what it says until the White House releases it in absolutely final form. Nevertheless, the staff will now engage in the charade of hosting multiple appearances by various interest groups that want to tell the President’s people about those concerns without really knowing what they should be talking about.
EPA is due in court on December 19 to explain to a judge what rule it has written. We can only hope that it is not the pale alternative crafted by the White House and put out for comment. That pitiful compromise would perpetuate the status quo, with the states left to continue to do a bad job at overseeing these huge pits in the ground that will inevitably burst, spilling toxic sludge across the landscape.Full text
This week, CPR President Rena Steinzor and I joined with the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition to submit comments to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) urging the state to strengthen the permit that regulates Maryland’s nearly 600 industrial animal farms. MDE is in the process of renewing the General Discharge Permit, a one-size-fits-all permit that covers Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and Maryland Animal Feeding Operations (MAFOs) within the state (collectively known as Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs)). These farms raise hundreds of millions of animals each year and produce vast quantities of waste, playing a significant role in the ongoing degradation of the Chesapeake Bay and waterways throughout the state.Full text
In an op-ed published in The Hill on Friday, CPR President Rena Steinzor makes the case that in appointing a successor to Attorney General Eric Holder, President Obama needs to find a prosecutor tough enough to go after corporate malfeasance with more than a series of comparatively weak deferred prosecution agreements.
Of course, prosecutors can’t send corporations to jail — they are inanimate paper entities. But forcing them to acknowledge that they broke criminal laws is more than a symbolic gesture, which is why corporate lawyers work so hard to avoid such outcomes. The stigma of such guilty pleas lasts, rightly spooking existing and would-be investors.
Holder’s record in this area is tainted by his embrace of the “too big to jail” argument that the collateral damage from going after even the most serious corporate malefactors is intolerable. She writes,
This egregious off-ramp was spawned by the distorted fable the Fortune 100 have spun to explain the demise of Arthur Andersen, which followed its gigantic client, Enron, out of business within months after the sham finances they had erected together hit the press. The fable attributes Andersen’s collapse to a criminal indictment lodged by Justice Department prosecutors. In truth, its clients had deserted the firm in droves when it was first implicated in the scandal, and the disclosure that employees had shredded tons of paper as soon as Enron was discredited hastened this exodus.
EPA’s proposed new rule for greenhouse gas emissions from power plants gets a lot of things right. For one thing, it recognizes that electric utilities can employ a variety of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They can switch to natural gas or even renewable energy sources. They can fund end-use efficiency improvements—such as energy efficient windows, better insulation, and light bulbs that burn brightly even while they conserve electricity. All of these techniques reduce power plant emissions. So, EPA is right to make them building blocks for its rule.Full text