GOP-controlled House complicates Obama’s agenda on climate change

February 9, 2011 By    

President Barack Obama’s carrot-and-stick approach to climate change policy highlighted a year ago in this column continues on course and sets an important part of his administration’s energy and environment policy agenda for the 112th Congress.

His carrot was for Congress to pass climate change policy in Congress last year. His stick was to have the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) move forward under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the largest stationary sources, such as power plants, factories and refineries, if Congress failed to act. Ultimately, Congress did not act, and the administration is continuing to follow through with its “stick” at the EPA.

The EPA appropriately anticipated a slew of lawsuits on its action. To the delight of environmentalists, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the EPA’s finding that greenhouse gas emissions from large facilities endanger health. As a result, the EPA was able to move forward in January with its efforts to make these largest companies use the “best technologies available” to limit carbon dioxide emissions.

What the Obama administration didn’t plan on was a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which has stated rather clearly that the president can expect the GOP to oppose his policies every step of the way.

The new Republican leadership’s public line of attack against the administration – no matter the issue – is that the administration’s actions have been overreaching, harmful to the economy and will result in a loss of jobs. Republicans are good at sticking to their script – but what remains to be seen is just how effective new House Republican committee chairmen will be.

The Energy and Commerce Committee, led by new Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., is a case in point.

Upton has an independent streak on party issues. For example, he was one of a few Republicans who voted against cutting the EPA’s budget in 2008, has voted in support of removing some federal lands from energy exploration and production, and opposed oil drilling in the Great Lakes and off the Florida coast. However, last December, he wrote that the EPA’s efforts to reduce carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act amounted to “an unconstitutional power grab.”

Whether he can help lead an effective Republican charge to repeal health care, rein in the EPA and increase domestic energy production, as he campaigned to do in his committee chairmanship race, remains to be seen.

Other tactics the GOP might employ include conducting a series of investigations that use subpoenas to compel reluctant witnesses to testify and gain information.

The other key tactic will be an attempt to defund key programs and agencies. So look for House Republicans to try and include funding language in the EPA’s budget that would prohibit it from spending money on enforcement of the Clean Air Act to control greenhouse gases.

With Democrats still in control of the Senate, the administration has a powerful ally in its fight with House Republicans, and it might be able to fend them off. However, they no longer have the large majority they once had. And cap and trade stalled in the Senate, so the president might have a real fight on his hands.

Complicating the president’s agenda is the fact that the 2012 election is just around the corner, and economic recovery and job creation are slow in coming. These facts conspire to make it even more difficult to counter Republicans’ arguments that the president’s regulatory plan will have a severe economic impact (job loss) versus Democrats’ argument that cleaner air protects the health of Americans. The EPA already has delayed two regulations (one for smog and one for industrial boilers) in December.

If I were advising Republicans, I’d put most of my resources into organizing the rust belt states that will be the most impacted in the short term by EPA’s activities. If I were advising the president, I’d say keep working to clean our nation’s air. The resulting battle will be interesting to watch.

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