Why Obama Is So Autocratic About Environmental Policy

Because you can’t have a serious conversation with most Republicans about climate change.

Executives: President Obama and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Reuters.

After President Obama’s veto this week of legislation demanding the approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, congressional Republicans are charging him with once again flouting the will of the duly elected legislative branch. The charge has the ring of truth when it comes to energy and environmental matters, given how much the Obama administration has sought to circumvent Republicans with regulation and executive orders in that arena, most notably with the rules announced last year limiting carbon emissions from existing power plants. But there is a reason that Obama has chosen to go it alone on energy: The GOP’s utter refusal to reckon with the reality of climate change has left him no choice. And if anyone doubts the extent of that refusal, consider what happened Wednesday at a routine joint hearing of two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees.

The hearing was being held to take testimony on the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget request from agency chief Gina McCarthy, the no-nonsense Bostonian who worked in Mitt Romney’s administration in Massachusetts. For two and a half hours, McCarthy absorbed a barrage of angry monologues and rhetorical questions from the committee’s Republicans. Here are some of the highlights from Republican congressmen engaging with one of the most pressing issues of our time:

1. Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican and former chairman of the committee who is so close with the oil industry that he apologized to BP’s CEO for the government daring to fine the company for the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill, started off by telling McCarthy: “I could really have some fun with you, but you’re too nice a person.” He proceeded to have fun with her anyway, repeatedly demanding to know whether she had seen any actual signed documents from the president’s agreement with the Chinese government to limit carbon emissions. His staff, he said, had told him that no such documents actually existed, an omission that he cast in conspiratorial tones. “If it’s a signed agreement, let’s see it,” he said. “You don’t just stand up and say, ‘We have this agreement’ and hug. What you have is a press release, a photo op.” McCarthy said that as she understood it, the agreement was a serious one at “the highest levels of both countries … expressing both of their commitments to this goal,” regardless of whatever paperwork was signed. That didn’t satisfy Barton. “I can take you over to the National Archives and show you the signed Declaration of Independence. I can show you lots of documents that have signatures on them,” he said. “You and I can agree that I’m not going to go out and rob a bank. You can agree that you’re not going to rob a bank. We can both hold a press conference: ‘We’ve agreed that we’re not going to rob a bank.’ ”

McCarthy was not sure where to go with that. Also unclear is whether she knew what Barton was referring to when he mentioned the “Koyota Accord.” Presumably, he was referring to the Kyoto Protocol on carbon emissions, and not a new joint venture between Toyota and Kia.

2. Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia told McCarthy that she was, effectively, responsible for an epidemic of mental illness. “I keep seeing the EPA putting in another regulation on top of another regulation,” he said. “What it’s led, by these overregulation in rural America, it’s led to people, their well-being, their mental health, is all being affected by it. I think we’re having some depression in areas around the county because of the threats of regulation and what it’s doing to jobs … I really believe it’s directly attributed to the regulatory body with it (sic).” No mention of the other factors that are putting pressure on the coal industry in his district, such as the natural gas boom happening very nearby.

In case you wondered, McKinley doesn’t believe in man-made climate change. “You continue to issue more regulations even though the models say it doesn’t work with it,” he told McCarthy. “You have a model that says how [carbon dioxide] impacts the temperatures around the globe. We know from the standards that that doesn’t work.” Oh?

3. Rep. Bill Johnson, representing the district just across the Ohio River from McKinley’s in the Appalachian swath of southeastern Ohio, demanded to know why the EPA had not chosen Ohio for one of its public hearings on the new carbon emissions rules. McCarthy noted that it had held one in Pittsburgh, not far from his district. This wasn’t good enough for Johnson—“How many coal mines are there in Pittsburgh?” he asked—and he demanded that McCarthy come hold an event in his district “and talk directly to the people who work in those coal mines and power plants and are likely to lose their jobs as a result of the EPA’s action, your actions.” The invitation might have seemed more hospitable if it was not being shouted at her. “Let me ask you: Will you meet with them? I will arrange my schedule so I can be there, to be there with you,” he said. “We’ve been reaching out all across the country,” she said. Johnson: “I’m asking you, will you come with me?” McCarthy: “Every state is asking me to go to their state.” Johnson: “I’m asking you today, that’s a simple question, yes or no, can I get with your team?” He talked over her response. “OK, I’m going to have my team reach out to your office to set up a meeting, because I’m going to take that as a yes.” She tried to answer again, to no avail. “Will you come? You’re not going to answer the question. It’s clear why you left those folks out. But I’ll set up the meeting.” Who said civility was dead in Washington?

4. Even the more cordial of the questioners made clear that they, too, weren’t buying this whole anthropogenic climate change thing. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the third-ranking Republican in the House, told McCarthy, “I know the president loves talking about global warming—and they’re canceling flights all around the country due to snow blizzards.” Rep. Larry Bucshon of Indiana opened his questions by saying, “Climate is changing, it’s always been changing for centuries, and reasonable people can continue to have a debate on the human impact on that.”

The unfortunate thing about this spectacle was that it obscured some serious questions from a few Republicans—about challenges facing the nuclear industry or about the feasibility of the carbon dioxide capture-and-storage technology that the administration is placing great faith in. In a functioning Congress, a hearing between the energy committee and the EPA administrator would consist mostly of such substantive back and forth—a chance for legislators to engage directly with the executive branch, to challenge its assumptions, and to draw its attention to the reality of how policies are playing out in their districts.

But this Congress simply can’t summon such seriousness on climate change and energy policy. In the summer of 2009, the House passed cap-and-trade legislation to limit carbon emissions, but it fell short of the 60-vote threshold in the Senate to overcome a GOP filibuster. Since then, nothing. Rep. Ed Whitfield, the Kentucky Republican overseeing Wednesday’s hearing, said that the “cap-and-trade system was rejected by the Congress,” only to have Obama “[go] out and make international commitments” on carbon emissions.

But Rep. John Yarmuth, the only Democrat in Whitfield’s Kentucky delegation, saw it another way. “In fact,” he said, cap and trade “received a majority of votes in both the House and Senate and it was only killed because of Republicans in the Senate who filibustered that bill.” Then he zeroed in on the heart of the matter: “Is it fair to say that if [cap and trade] had been enacted into law and not been stopped by Senate Republicans that we would not be involved with [the new carbon emissions rules] right now?”

“In some ways, that might be the case,” McCarthy replied. “It might have impacted the choice considerably.”

No might about it. If Congress had acted to address climate change, Obama would have signed the law and implemented it. Instead, Congress is still talking about planes canceled by “snow blizzards.”