Politics & Policy

Under the Green Hammer

The green lobby is pressing Obama to bypass Congress and impose its agenda by fiat.

President Obama’s reelection has the climate cult chomping at the bit to get a long wish list of policies put in place, from energy taxes to cap-and-trade to a possible blockade on coal and natural-gas exports. And most of these activists are in no mood to let that messy little obstacle called the democratic process slow the juggernaut.

Some, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, are encouraging the president to bypass Congress and shutter more coal-fired power plants through executive action. A pair of law professors are among the co-authors of a book promoting seven executive orders they hope Obama will use to protect “people and the environment by the stroke of a pen.” A coalition of 70 green groups has written Obama demanding that he make more aggressive use of executive power. And the green-leaning media muppets are chiming in, lending the whole push a troubling air of legitimacy.

#ad#People become dangerous when they begin believing that their chosen cause outweighs any other consideration. And when your cause is as arrogantly grandiose as “saving the planet,” you might come to believe that any means are justified, even if you have to dodge Congress and trample the Constitution along the way. That more Americans don’t seem to find this line of thinking alarming is itself alarming.

Thus you have the two law professors mentioned above, Rena Steinzor and Amy Sinden, of the University of Maryland and Temple University respectively, arguing in a recent Baltimore Sun op-ed (“Obama Should Sidestep Congress”) that the supposedly obstructionist tactics of congressional Republicans, combined with the “spanking” they suffered in November, license President Obama to “use every bit of executive power he can marshal, by directing the regulatory agencies of his administration to move with dispatch to regulate and enforce in a number of vital areas.”

That meddlesome mob called Congress can’t be completely ignored, the professors concede. There will be “budgets to pass, an education reauthorization bill to craft, battles aplenty over spending, and much more,” say the two. “But it’s hard to imagine anything of consequence coming from Capitol Hill that isn’t the product of brutal fighting and bitter compromise. By contrast, if [Obama] directs his regulatory agencies to move with dispatch, the president can make huge advances on health, safety and environmental issues, along the way crafting a lasting legacy on these issues that will stand beside many of his first-term accomplishments.”

The two are big Obama fans, obviously. But one can’t help wondering what they would say about the propriety and constitutionality of what they are urging if a conservative Republican were president. I’m guessing, at the risk of putting words into their mouths, that a Republican president who embarked on a concerted effort to ram an agenda through without even consulting Congress would stand accused by the two professors of having undemocratic, perhaps even dictatorial, tendencies.

That “brutal fighting and bitter compromise” are built into the process by design, through the system of checks and balances codified in the Constitution, is immaterial to our law professors. All that matters to them is that Obama scores touchdown after touchdown during his second term, running roughshod over whatever token opposition members of Congress, also duly elected, are able to mount. The constitutionality, the correctness, the wisdom of this approach are not even of passing interest. The ends justify the means.

Abuses of power by the White House used to freak liberals out. Now they cheer them. You thus have a growing cadre of liberal pundits, many of whom cut their teeth decrying “abuses of power” by the Nixon White House, urging the current president to ram, slam, and cram his agenda through. Damn Congress! Damn legitimate voices of dissent! Damn the Constitution too!

There is a strong authoritarian streak running through the environmental movement that should be alarming even to fellow progressives who still believe in working within the rules to put their policies in place. We first saw this on display during President Clinton’s time in office, when much of his green agenda — creation of new national monuments, for instance, which closes designated scenic areas to multiple use, and approval of the so-called roadless rule, which was designed to establish de facto wilderness over roughly a third of our national forests — was put in place via executive actions that sidestepped congressional approval.

#page#Nothing came of complaints, voiced at the time, that Clinton was misusing or abusing the Antiquities Act when he created the controversial national monuments, sometimes in direct defiance of what representatives of the affected states thought. But even if the designations were constitutional, technically speaking, it would seem prudent for a chief executive to walk this path cautiously and not try to grab for more power than our system allots.

Clinton, as we know, was a rogue, who casually discarded such considerations (if they even flitted through his mind) in favor of political self-interest. He needed green votes to win reelection, and later to build a second-term “legacy,” and this was a quick, if typically slick, way to secure them. But more high-minded, less narcissistic presidents might exercise a little more self-restraint, putting what’s best for the country and, yes, the Constitution above political expediency. At least I hope we’ll have presidents of that character in the future.

#ad#Unlike his veep, Clinton was no eco-Calvinist. The only green he really cared about is found on a golf course. He was just a shrewd politician, who leaned green when his “triangulation” calculations called for it. But the precedent set by his go-it-alone, screw-Congress approach to green legacy-building could invite even greater temptations to eco-authoritarianism when the president is a committed ideologue, as our current president is.

Of course, going through Congress slows things down. That’s the point. It acts as a snare for nutty carbon-control schemes like cap-and-trade. But rather than take no for an answer on that issue, President Obama has instructed the EPA to pursue his ends through regulatory means. The “trading” part may be missing, but the “caps” are being put in place, whether Congress wants them or not, thanks to a spate of new federal rules — some executed, some still coming — that will make it nearly impossible to construct new coal-fired power plants, and could hasten the closure of existing plants across the United States.

And that’s undoubtedly just a preview of coming attractions in Obama’s second term.

This isn’t a president who retreats, or tacks to the center (“triangulates,” in Clinton’s term), when facing political headwinds. This president isn’t capable of admitting error. This is a president who doubles down on disastrous policies — whether on failed stimulus or failed green-energy “investments” like Solyndra — and defies somebody to stop him. We could thus see a major challenge to our system of checks and balances if this already-headstrong chief executive heeds the advice of those who are saying he should throw off constitutional shackles in order to take decisive action on climate change.

We’ll hear no squawks of protest about this from his fellow eco-authoritarians. It’s telling, for instance, that a number of prominent environmental groups have endorsed a plan to “reform” — meaning negate — Senate filibuster rules that give the minority a fighting chance.

Might this new wave of eco-authoritarianism rise to the level of a constitutional crisis in Obama’s second term? That depends on whether the other branches of government, along with the “watchdog” press, dare to precipitate a crisis by challenging presidential abuses of power. Such a crisis can materialize only when a power-grabber encounters determined resistance, from rival branches, from the press, or from the public at large. And that’s hard to envision under present circumstances.

A divided Congress doesn’t appear to have enough unity of purpose to confront an eco-authoritarian White House. And the lapdog media have shown no inclination to growl, or even bark, when this president crosses a line. If Obama remains as Teflon-coated as he has been, I’m guessing he could push the envelope much, much further than even Clinton did. And because he’s an ideologue, rather than just a political opportunist, this could take on an ominous aspect that was missing in the Bubba years.

No cause is so great that it justifies subversion of the democratic process. Those who argue otherwise are reckless people who ought to be treated with bipartisan suspicion and scorn. The health of the planet is in much less danger than the health of this republic, when people begin to seriously contemplate such acts of subversion. The rising tide we should fear is not an ocean tide swollen by ice melt, but a tide of tyranny that travels under the green banner.

— Sean Paige is deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity–Colorado and editor of MonkeywrenchingAmerica.com, a website that monitors the threat to our economy, property, and freedoms posed by green extremists.   

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