Obama calls Congress’ relevance into question with climate plan

Source: John McArdle and Emily Yehle, E&E reporters • Posted: Thursday, June 27, 2013

President Obama used his high-profile climate change speech Tuesday to try to drive a nail into the coffin of Congress’ relevance when it comes to leading the country, and the world, to a lower-carbon future.

One day later, several lawmakers declared that reports of Congress’ irrelevance in the climate change debate had been greatly exaggerated.

“It’s wrong,” said Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry, a Republican member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Congress has a constitutional role to play. But it doesn’t surprise me that the president is going around Congress. It seems to be the way he acts anyway.”

In his remarks at Georgetown University, Obama noted that he had urged members of Congress and senators in his State of the Union address to come up with a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change.

“And I still want to see that happen,” the president said. “But this is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock. It demands our attention now.

Obama went on to outline a sweeping plan involving new greenhouse gas rules for existing power plants, potential changes for U.S. EPA’s proposal for future power plants, more renewable energy permitting on federal lands — and he even threw the environmental community a bone when it came to his pending decision on approving the Keystone XL pipeline.

Despite all that, he asked little to nothing of Congress. Instead, he took time to highlight how dysfunctional that institution has become.

“Forty-three years ago, Congress passed a law called the Clean Air Act of 1970,” he said. “It was a good law. … That law passed the Senate unanimously. Think about that — it passed the Senate unanimously. It passed the House of Representatives 375 to 1. … You can barely get that many votes to name a post office these days.”

That line drew laughter from the audience of invited supporters from the environmental community.

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the book “The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track,” yesterday said he thinks the point Obama was making was a relevant one.

“We have a level of dysfunction that is simply greater than we’ve seen in our lifetimes,” he said of the 113th Congress. “And on this issue, especially, where it’s become almost dogma on the Republican side to declare climate change as a hoax, finding a way to reach any common ground when you can’t agree on a basic premise really becomes difficult.”

Ornstein said Obama would probably much prefer to go through the legislative process, in part because executive actions will only take him so far. It would take congressional action to institute a carbon tax, Ornstein pointed out.

“It’s much preferable if you can make solutions through the legislative process,” he said. “But, when you can’t, then there’s an enormous temptation to do it through executive action. And he’s not the first second-term president to come to that conclusion.”

But Republicans argued yesterday that Obama was sidestepping Congress simply because he didn’t get his way. The House approved a cap-and-trade bill in 2009, but it died in the Senate.

“I think there has been a recognition that the initiatives that he has supported in the past legislatively — and this is going back somewhat — as they related to climate change were not going to happen,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “So I think the president is looking at this and saying, ‘Well, we’ll go in the backdoor.'”

Terry said the “end around” of Congress the president is taking is more frustrating to him than the situation Republicans found themselves in after the 2008 elections, when Democrats held the majority in both the House and Senate.

“Of course we were frustrated that they were pushing such dramatic bills here in the House, but we knew they had the majority and that’s the way it worked,” he said. “This is more frustrating than that because they are going around us. We don’t get to have a debate on the floor. We don’t get to at least have a shot. … This is going around democracy.”

Terry said House Republicans have few options in terms of blocking the president but that they could continue to hold hearings and educate the public about the impacts of Obama’s climate change plan. That plan, Republicans argue, will kill fossil fuel industry jobs and dramatically increase the cost of electricity. And Terry said those ramifications could come back to haunt Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections.

On the Senate side, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, found Obama’s remarks about Congress’ ability to take action ironic.

“It’s interesting because the president in his speech said he’s doing this because he wants to show the world leadership, but the way that China and Russia are responding to the president, he seems to be the one that’s irrelevant,” Barrasso said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) contended that Obama had other options, such as advocating for piecemeal legislation.

“The way you do this is you come to Congress, set people down and say can we get legislative packages that would lower emissions on homes and offices? Can we do something more on cars? Can we incentivize energy sources for production purposes that are lower in carbon?” Graham said.

When asked whether such legislation was possible in Congress today, Graham said, “With presidential leadership, I don’t know what’s possible.”

‘The only way forward’

Lawmakers have had trouble moving bills that make even incremental progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

An efficiency bill from Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) fell to the wayside last year and, after being reintroduced in February, is only now picking up steam. Its aims are modest: Update voluntary building codes and implement energy-saving programs at federal agencies. But proponents are concerned it could be derailed by controversial votes on unrelated amendments targeting EPA’s climate agenda and the Keystone XL pipeline (E&E Daily, June 26).


Yesterday, Shaheen dismissed the idea that Obama’s move indicated Congress’ irrelevance. Her bill, she said, is a “good step toward addressing climate change.”

“I think it’s appropriate for the president to look at what he can do,” she said. “And in Congress, we should be looking at what we can do.”

Congressional expert Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who co-authored the book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism” with Ornstein, said Obama is being a realist.

“The executive action plan he announced is the only way forward for him,” Mann said yesterday.

Asked how Congress should respond to the president’s effort to take action on his own, Mann said there is no united “Congress” to respond.

“Democrats want affirmative legislative action to deal with climate change while Republicans want to prevent the president from using his executive authority to accomplish the same objective,” he said. “Republicans can and will kill the former; Democrats will reduce the latter to irritants more than decisive steps.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, yesterday said he was comfortable with Obama’s use of his executive powers to take action on the issue of climate change and offered a historical comparison involving President Theodore Roosevelt’s role in the development of the National Park System.

During Roosevelt’s tenure, the new Antiquities Act enabled the president to proclaim historic landmarks and national monuments. And according to a history of Roosevelt by the National Park Service, the 26th president did not hesitate to use the executive authority provided by that law.

By the end of 1906, Roosevelt had proclaimed four national monuments: Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, El Morro in New Mexico, and Montezuma Castle and Petrified Forest in Arizona. In 1908, Roosevelt used the power to protect a large portion of the Grand Canyon as a national monument. Many areas originally protected by presidents under the Antiquities Act were later enlarged and reclassified as national parks. NPS attributes the Antiquities Act as the original authority for nearly a quarter of the 397 areas constituting the National Park System in 2012.

“If you go back and look at history, Congress bleated about that,” Connolly said of Roosevelt’s actions on parklands. “They didn’t like it at all. But Teddy Roosevelt did and thank God he did. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a National Park System.”

This week, with his actions on climate change, Obama is “recognizing reality as TR did in a different context,” Connolly said.

But Connolly did acknowledge that congressional deference to executive action can become a slippery slope.

“I don’t think there ought to be unchecked executive power in this government. We’re a government of checks and balances,” he said. “But I also believe we’re out of balance. I believe the legislative branch has abused its authority with this president, and he has to look for ways to govern. And that’s what he’s doing.”

As he was standing outside the House floor, Connolly pointed to the end of the chamber where Republicans were gathering.

“Most of the guys on [that] side are into science denial,” he said. “What are you supposed to do with that if you’re the president of the United States?”