In Washington, congressional Republicans have drawn a line against the president’s climate initiatives, and the House is scheduled to vote this week on legislation that would undo new Environmental Protection Agency rules on power-plant emissions -- a major element of the administration’s efforts to address climate change. The legislation is unlikely to become law, but Republicans hope it shows the international climate negotiators that the nation is not united politically behind the president’s proposals.
Congressional Republican efforts to sabotage U.S. domestic policy is unique in modern American history. For generations, Democrats and Republicans have waged fierce fights over all kinds of policy measures, but even bitter partisans didn't make much of an effort to weaken existing American laws and programs after they were implemented -- though that's exactly what Republicans did during the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
But U.S. policymakers taking steps to sabotage U.S. foreign policy is qualitatively different, and far more alarming -- and in the Obama era, far more common.
We've occasionally seen individual Republicans taking steps to undermine the White House on the global stage. For example, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) traveled to Guatemala last year and worked against U.S. foreign policy during the migrant-children crisis. In 2010, then-House Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) traveled to Israel in the hopes of undermining U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. As long-time readers know, actions like these used to be unheard of in the American tradition, but once President Obama took office, Republicans largely re-wrote the rules.
Earlier this year, 47 Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), took the campaign to an entirely new level, sending a letter to Iran, telling officials not to trust the United States. The goal wasn't subtle: GOP lawmakers hoped to sabotage their own country's foreign policy in the midst of delicate international nuclear talks.
A month later, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the nation's most aggressive climate deniers and the man Senate Republicans chose to lead the Senate committee on environmental policy, boasted, "The Tom Cotton letter was an educational effort." As global climate talks get underway at the COP21 conference in Paris, Republicans hope to apply the lessons of the educational effort to try to sabotage the White House once more.
It's that last sentence that carries the most weight: congressional Republicans aren't participants in the international climate talks, but they're nevertheless hopeful that they can play a role in derailing the negotiations from afar.
This week's vote is just part of a larger effort. GOP lawmakers, anticipating a possible climate agreement, are pushing to label any such deal a "treaty" so Congress would have the authority to kill it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, wrote a Washington Post op-ed over the holiday weekend insisting that the president doesn't have the authority to sign an international climate agreement.
Meanwhile, Jim Inhofe, a.ka. Senator Snowball, has raised the prospect of traveling to Paris in order to tell international officials "that they’re going to be lied to by the Obama administration."
Writing in The New Republic, Ben Adler recently summarized the dynamic nicely: "Republicans are trying to subvert their own government’s foreign policy on climate change."
Note, the Republican Party -- the only major party in any major democracy on Earth that rejects climate science -- isn't trying to convince anyone that its ridiculous views are correct. All GOP officials want is for Obama to come home empty-handed, indifferent to the fact that the climate crisis will continue to intensify without restrictions on pollution or emissions.
If that means American officials sabotaging American policy on the international stage, so be it.
As we talked about in April, we’ve grown quite accustomed to congressional Republicans causing deliberate gridlock on Capitol Hill. Increasingly, however, GOP lawmakers are equally eager to block policymaking on a global scale.
In the American tradition, the idea of elected U.S. officials brazenly trying to undermine their own country's attempts at international leadership was unthinkable. But in 2015, it’s become almost routine.
In more ways than one, it's not a healthy development.