Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Fixing Federalism Sidestepped in Opposing E.P.A. Coal Regulations

In his letter to every state governor in March 2015, Mitch McConnell, the majority leader in the U.S. Senate, urged the state officials to ignore the E.P.A.’s regulations that when implemented would reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. In his letter, the senator complained that President Obama was “allowing the E.P.A. to wrest control of a state’s energy policy.”[1] Were McConnell the chair of the E.U.’ s European Council rather than the U.S.’s Senate, he would doubtlessly have pointed to the worsening “democracy deficit,” wherein regulators in the European Commission take power away from state legislatures. Yet, surprisingly (or many not), the majority leader did not frame the issue in terms of federalism.

Instead, McConnell depicted the political problem as being one between the Congress and the executive branch, including the White House. “The E.P.A. is bypassing Congress and the American people by unilaterally proposing these crippling regulations that would wreak havoc on our economy and are clearly unprecedented,” he said.[2] In other words, President Obama is going too far, usurping Congress’s constitutional power. Not a word edgewise about the states having to comply. “I have used and will continue to use all of the tools available to protect families and jobs,” he continued, “whether that be in Congress, or outside of the legislative process.”[3] What about protecting the state governments from further federal encroachment? Not a word.

I contend that the senator had a vested governmental and political interest in swerving off from the issue being federal encroachment, for the U.S. Senate is a federal institution and the senator gets his power from it. He was not about to urge the governors to resist federal power, not to mention wrestle some of it back to the states. Yet in protecting himself, his institution, and the government of which it is a part, the majority leader sidestepped an opportunity to attend to the viability of the American federal system. The senator’s short-term horizon could also be seen in that his stand on the regulations translates into greater climate change. The silver lining of this rather gray cloud is perhaps that if we heat the planet’s atmosphere enough, the question of the long-term viability of the American federal system will be moot.

[1] Coral Davenport, “McConnell Urges States to Help Thwart Obama’s ‘War on Coal,’” The New York Times, March 20, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.