Last summer, President Obama unveiled an aggressive plan to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants, setting a goal of cutting emissions 30% by 2030. As part of the administration’s agenda, states would have some flexibility in how they reach the target.
It was just two weeks ago, however, that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrote an op-ed with some specific advice for states: ignore the White House altogether. In effect, the Republican leader doesn’t just want state officials to pretend that climate change doesn’t exist, he also wants states to ignore the EPA and federal regulations. McConnell said the courts might derail the administration’s policy, so in the meantime, state officials can and should do nothing.
None other than Christine Todd Whitman, the head of the EPA under the Bush/Cheney administration, responded to McConnell with an op-ed of her own. “I was brought up to believe that following the law isn’t optional,” she wrote. McConnell, Whitman added, “can rail against EPA, cut its budget, do all that he has the power to do within the law if he must, but he cannot and should not call on others to ignore a law.”
As it turns out, the New York Times reports today that McConnell was just getting started.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has begun an aggressive campaign to block President Obama’s climate change agenda in statehouses and courtrooms across the country, arenas far beyond Mr. McConnell’s official reach and authority. […]Since Mr. McConnell is limited in how he can use his role in the Senate to block regulations, he has taken the unusual step of reaching out to governors with a legal blueprint for them to follow to stop the rules in their states. Mr. McConnell’s Senate staff, led by his longtime senior energy adviser, Neil Chatterjee, is coordinating with lawyers and lobbying firms to try to ensure that the state plans are tangled up in legal delays.
We’re well past the strange op-ed stage; McConnell yesterday “sent a detailed letter to every governor in the United States laying out a carefully researched legal argument as to why states should not comply with Mr. Obama’s regulations.”
The letter even cites Laurence Tribe, a constitutional scholar at Harvard Law School, who believes the Obama administration’s regulations probably exceed the EPA’s legal authority.
But that doesn’t mean Tribe is on board with McConnell’s campaign. On the contrary, the law professor told The New Republic last month that states “can’t count on my being right.”
As we discussed a few weeks ago, McConnell effectively wants states to gamble: defy federal policy, refuse to submit plans to reduce emissions, and hope the courts rule against the White House.
Looking ahead, states have until the summer of 2016 to submit their plans to the EPA. What if they take McConnell’s advice and simply refuse to comply? Rebecca Leber explained, if states blow off federal policy, “the EPA’s one-size-fits-all model (a ‘federal implementation plan’) kicks in.”
It’s a bit like the Affordable Care Act’s policy regarding exchanges: if states want to create a marketplace that works best for them, great. If they want to do nothing, Washington will impose their own model.
There is, of course, a broader irony to all of this. In recent years, Republicans have been hysterical in their condemnations of President Obama, accusing him of dictatorial tyranny for picking and choosing which federal policies he’ll choose to follow and which he’ll ignore.
And yet, here’s McConnell, playing a remarkably similar game.
Postscript: The New York Times report added that part of McConnell’s gambit is intended to undermine international climate talks scheduled for later this year in Paris: “The idea is to create uncertainty in the minds of other world leaders as to whether the United States can follow through on its pledges to cut emissions.”