Obama on Climate Change: There Is No Congress

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WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 25:  U.S. President Barack Obama speaks as he unveils his plan on climate change June 25, 2013 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. President Obama laid out his plan to diminish carbon pollution and prepare the country for the impacts of climate change.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

There is a very fortunate irony about President Obama’s second term. He has to deal with a Congress barely capable of keeping the government’s lights on, let alone crafting rational laws, and totally unable to handle any number of policy crises. Yet, on the single most urgent issue facing the country (and the world), climate change, Obama doesn’t need Congress at all.

The contrast between those two facts — the awesome urgency of climate change, and Congress’s inability to tackle even the simplest problems — set the predicate for Obama’s speech today at Georgetown University unveiling his second-term climate agenda. Obama recalled that the 1971 Clean Air Act passed the Senate unanimously, with only one opposing vote in the House. It was a time when the conservative movement exerted hardly any meaningful influence over national politics. Drawing on the contrast between then and now, Obama declared himself open to any new ideas, or better ideas, than his own, but without any illusion that they might surface.

Obama’s plan consists of a long list of small measures along with one large unannounced one. The small measures include using federal land for green energy, toughening up appliance standards, and a long list of other initiatives that, taken together, add up to a significant climate response. The other half is applying the Clean Air Act to greenhouse-gas pollution (as the Supreme Court has previously required). Obama committed himself to doing that, but the details of the regulations won’t come out until next year.

The full reality of Congress's dysfunction, and Obama’s unique ability to circumvent it on this one issue, has not really sunk in. NBC’s First Read, an astute news summary, argues today:

Yes, the president will announce some executive actions, but to do what he really wants he needs some legislative action, and this Congress is just not going to prioritize anything having to do with climate … Opponents have successfully stopped previous climate-change policy efforts by simply turning the issue into a pocketbook issue by labeling it as an energy tax or a rate hike on average Americans’ power bills. And there’s no reason to think this same tactic won’t work again.

No, he doesn’t need legislative action. Meanwhile, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse hopefully posits that climate regulation would spur Congress to enact a legislative solution to replace it: “When the president changes the executive side of the status quo and puts in strong regulations, they now have the predicament that they have to comply and the cost of their compliance comes entirely out of their pocket, whereas if they run over to Congress and work with their friends, they can solve the problem another way that frees up revenues that can help them with their cost of compliance.”

But utilities aren’t the barrier to Congress passing a climate law. Utilities generally supported a cap-and-trade law in 2009 (as an alternative to potentially something worse). Business interests, in general, have displayed plenty of willingness to cut deals — on a grand bargain, lifting the debt ceiling, immigration reform. Mindless right-wing hysteria, not the business lobby, is what stops Republicans from compromising with Obama. And with a congressional map that renders the House Republican majority almost fully voter-proof, that dynamic is unlikely to change until 2020 at the earliest.

What’s more, even a Democratic-controlled Congress is only marginally capable of dealing with a problem like climate change. In 2009, the House passed a cap-and-trade bill shot through with compromises. If the Senate had passed anything at all, it would have been weakened further still — the Senate disproportionately represents high energy-using rural areas. So even the fanciful prospect of a Congress that did have some possibility of passing a climate law would not, as Matthew Yglesias posits, pass a better law than the one Obama can likely enact on his own. Brad Plumer argues that carbon regulation would probably work better than even an unrealistically effective version of cap and trade.

It is true that, in the long run, Congress will have to act. Obama can meet environmentalists’ near-term goal of reducing carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020 on his own. In the decades afterward, deeper cuts will be needed — humans have simply pumped too much carbon into the atmosphere to sustain any continuation of the old practices. Perhaps a functional Congress will one day emerge. In the meantime, the only way to understand the issue is that Congress, for all intents and purposes, does not exist.