President Obama has had little use for Congress in his second term, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t hard at work pushing his priorities into law. Frustrated by the democratic, legislative process, Obama has made his executive order pen into an extension of his left hand, using unelected agencies like the EPA to pass policies that have failed--or that the White House hasn’t even bothered to pursue--in Congress. With only 32 months until the clock runs out on his term, the president has the EPA in overdrive in an attempt to fundamentally change the American economy.
Since the Nixon administration, the EPA has had regulatory power stemming from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other duly-passed laws. Through its first four decades, spanning seven presidencies, the agency kept a low profile, generally focusing on enforcing and maintaining environmental standards set by Congress. This is how the federal regulatory state is intended to function--executing laws passed by elected legislators.
Now, the White House wants action on global warming, which according to Gallup, Americans rate no higher than the 17th-most important problem facing our country. Only 1 percent of Americans cite environmental concerns as the nation’s most urgent issue, and among eight pressing environmental issues Gallup polled, Americans were least concerned about global warming. Yet despite the apathy on Main Street and a previous flame-out in Congress--the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill of 2009 was unable to pass the Senate even when Democrats held a once-in-a-generation supermajority--Obama wants to pass global warming legislation to complete his personal portfolio, and he’s turning to the EPA as his lawmaking body.
Since April 1, the president’s Office of Management and Budget has met 30 times to consider the 134 regulations on the EPA’s to-do list. The agency rolled out draconian measures to limit the construction of future power plants--setting emissions standards that could render coal, the cheapest and most readily available fuel, nearly unusable--earlier this year, and is now trying to hastily write regulations for existing power plants to keep up with Obama’s pace. The EPA will also try to ram through restrictions on natural gas exploration and broaden inefficient and costly ethanol mandates before the White House changes hands.
This shadow lawmaking could permanently change the American energy economy, and create needless costs for consumers. Excess regulations on coal-fired power plants--aimed at solving a problem the American people clearly are not concerned about--will make electricity generation more expensive, spiking utility bills for homes and businesses across the board. The most viable alternative to coal is natural gas, but if the EPA pushes anti-hydrofracking rules into law, that clean fuel would become more difficult to extract.
President Obama knows the game--he understands that his most aggressive priorities stand no chance in Congress, and that the regulatory state gives the White House great power to make its own laws. But checks and balances between the branches of government exist for a reason, and it’s Congress’ job to serve as the people’s check on an activist executive more concerned with his legacy than the economic stability of his country.
Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.