The power of the federal government is limited by the U.S. Constitution. That shouldnâ€™t be a controversial statement. But in some quarters, it is. As the Obama administration readies a new slate of power grabs by the Environmental Protection Agency, it has called in former Republican EPA head Christine Todd Whitman to justify its actions.
â€śThe Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to address climate change,â€ť she wrote for Politico.com on Monday. â€śThat shouldnâ€™t be a controversial statement, but in some quarters, it is. â€¦ As administrator of the EPA from 2001-03, I served in the administration of President George W. Bush. I may sometimes disagree with his successor on the best way to address climate change as a matter of policy, but I absolutely agree that the EPA has broad authority to issue regulations addressing climate change.â€ť
The issue is regulation of â€śgreenhouse gases,â€ť including carbon dioxide. That issue came before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.
As Reuters reported, â€śThe nine justices will weigh whether the agency has authority to regulate greenhouse gases under a program for issuing permits for stationary sources of pollution, such as power plants and oil refineries. A decision is expected by the end of June.â€ť
Whitman argues that the government does have such power. Or at least, it should.
â€śClimate change is the defining environmental challenge of our time, and there are huge consequences for inaction â€” whether measured in human lives or economic disruption,â€ť she claimed. â€śGiven these stakes, I wish Congress would step up and do its job, refining Americaâ€™s approach to climate change and expanding the tools at the EPAâ€™s disposal. In previous decades, the EPA could rely upon bipartisan majorities to revise the Clean Air Act and address new and growing air pollution problems directly. Today, gridlock and partisanship make such common-sense action all but impossible. Nevertheless, the Clean Air Act â€” as written â€” remains the most powerful tool the EPA has at its disposal to address the issue of climate change.â€ť
Her reasoning, then, goes something like this: Since climate change is so important, and since Congress isnâ€™t doing its job, the EPA must use its â€śmost powerful toolâ€ť to address it.
But Daniel Fisher of Forbes points out that the Clean Air Act was never intended to do any such thing.
â€śCertainly Congress wasnâ€™t thinking of carbon dioxide when it passed the Clean Air Act in 1970,â€ť Fisher writes. â€śThe law was designed to reduce soot, ozone and other pollutants that contributed to smog and breathing problems on the ground. There was a direct relationship between reducing these pollutants and the quality of the air in cities like Los Angeles and New York.â€ť
In fact, when the Clean Air Act was passed, scientists were warning of apocalyptic global cooling. There was even a scientific consensus.
What Whitman and the Obama administration miss is that governmentâ€™s powers are limited â€” by design.
They argue that Congress is divided â€” but thatâ€™s a reason for not expanding an agencyâ€™s powers.
Thereâ€™s no justification for the EPA to seize more power.