Blue Dogs, New Democrats and more conservative factions of the Democratic Party typically have good relationships with business. But traditionally, most Democrats and many of this country's largest companies have tense relations. In Obama’s first term, the relationship between business and the president grew increasingly frosty. There are many reasons for this: after eight years of a very pro-business administration some businesses suddenly felt threatened; Republican leaders in the business community were hoping to unseat the president; and the White House sent signals that the American people and big business often have divergent interests.
The most obvious examples of the White House coming down harshly on industry are in the financial and environmental sectors. After Wall Street nearly brought the world to its knees, it was hard to make the case that government should just stay out of the way and let Wall Street self regulate. But unlike Wall Street, which had serious culpability in a gigantic economic scandal, the EPA began promoting policies which hurt energy companies that employ hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Democrats and Republicans agree that reducing carbon emissions is a worthy goal. But there are many different ways to skin that cat. Unfortunately, the EPA has not given the energy sector clear policy signals. After a cap-and-trade system was soundly defeated by Congress, the EPA decided it would use the Clean Air Act to pursue new emission reduction measures.
However, specific standards are still not set, as greenhouse gas rules have been delayed time and again. EPA's undefined rules on fracking, new power plants, and certain types of sulfur all fail to give the energy sector certainty -- which delays or hinders capital investments, facility improvements, and job creation.
The EPA's unclear policy stance isn't just limited to energy companies. The agency has also taken on smaller fights that are equally as troublesome.
One example is the EPA’s interest in chemical substances known as silicones. Unlike carbon emissions – which pose legitimate environmental challenges – silicones materials are safe, and there is no scientific evidence that showing they threaten the environment or human health. Ultimately, it’s the EPA’s job to monitor the effect silicones have on the environment. But the EPA has continually sent the industry mixed signals about the information it needs and the negotiating process.
At the outset of talks, the silicones industry voluntarily agreed to spend millions of dollars to monitor discharges around their plants and public wastewater treatment facilities to confirm that there are no environmental risks associated with their products. The EPA should have viewed this as a welcome development – it could have gotten the data it wanted at no cost to the taxpayer.
Now, after eight months of debate on the scope of the environmental monitoring, the EPA is suggesting that an ambiguous “peer consultation” (not peer review) process is required. Neither the EPA nor the silicones industry know what this actually means, and EPA has yet to show what value adding this layer of bureaucracy will provide. What is clear is that the EPA is further away from getting real environmental data about silicones.
President Obama has done a good job running the nation and deserved to be reelected. The key to his success in a second term will be his ability to get America back to work. Fair or not, poor relations with industry and regulatory uncertainty make that job exceedingly more difficult. That is why the new EPA Administrator should find ways to work with business. Whether it is giving energy companies regulatory certainty, or silicones companies a fair deal, both are good examples of how our federal government can balance protecting the environment and strengthening our economy.
Shows is a former Democratic Congressman who represented Mississippi's 4th Congressional District from 1999-2002.