Environmental protection

  • May 10, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Lisa Heinzerling, Professor of Law, Georgetown Law

    “The easiest way to save money,” President Obama declared in his 2012 State of the Union address, “is to waste less energy.”  In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama took another step and issued “a new goal for America”: “let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years.” The President also vowed that if Congress did not “act soon” to address climate change, he would “direct [his] Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

    Such welcome sentiments! So sensible and right and good! But here is a puzzling fact: at the same moment President Obama was uttering these wise and welcome remarks, his White House was blocking rules to promote the very energy efficiency he was extolling.  Far from urging the Cabinet to come up with executive actions on climate, his own White House was blocking his Cabinet from taking executive actions on climate. That situation persists to this day.

    To understand this rather startling state of affairs, we need some background about how the regulatory system works today. Congress has passed laws to increase in many different respects the energy efficiency of the “homes and businesses” the President talked about. Like most complicated contemporary laws, the laws on energy efficiency are implemented by an administrative agency, in this case the Department of Energy (DOE).  DOE writes rules that take the basic mandates given by Congress and give them shape; the agency specifies, for example, just how efficient new refrigerators and microwaves and lamps and buildings must be to meet Congress’s requirements.

    Once DOE writes a rule, however, it does not simply issue it. Instead, the rule must first pass through a White House office that oversees the federal rulemaking process – the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or OIRA. Under executive orders reaffirmed or issued by President Obama, no rule deemed significant by OIRA can be issued without OIRA’s approval. In the Obama administration, moreover, OIRA has increasingly become simply a portal into the political machinery of the larger White House. Rules go to OIRA and, from there, to the Domestic Policy Council, the White House economic offices, the White House Chief of Staff, even sometimes the President himself. (The former head of OIRA in this administration, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, documents (and lauds) this new reality in his recent book, “Simpler: The Future of Government.”)

    This is how the White House has come to block the very kinds of initiatives President Obama seemed to praise in his State of the Union addresses: energy efficiency rules have gone from DOE to OIRA and have never left.  As of this writing, nine rules from DOE on energy efficiency are stuck at OIRA. Five have been there since 2011, three since 2012. Six are not final rules; they are merely proposals.  Four of the rules are not even economically significant (that is, they do not impose costs of more than $100 million per year). But all of these rules are stuck, all the same.

  • May 8, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    While the Obama administration has done much to diversify the federal bench, Senate Republicans have so far successfully kept one of the nation’s most important appellate courts free of any diversity. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rules on significant and often complex matters, including national security concerns; but it also rules on matters that are of great concern to corporate America.

    Since the Republican Party is the primary coddler of the super wealthy, it’s hardly surprising that its leaders in the Senate are working feverishly to ensure that President Obama has little if any opportunity to change the ideological makeup of the D.C. Circuit. The graphic (right) produced by People For The American Way is a compelling and accessible picture of the matter. (Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley is also pushing legislation that would cut the number of judges on the bench; he claims the D.C. Circuit has enough judges and a light caseload. For the truth, read retired D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Patricia Wald’s piece for The Washington Post.)  

    For many years now, the D.C. Circuit has been controlled by conservative judges. There are four vacancies on the bench and Senate Republicans have successfully blocked the president from filling them. As Miranda notes in a PFAW blog post, because of Senate obstructionism Obama is the “first president since Woodrow Wilson to serve a full first term without placing a judge on the D.C. Circuit.”

    An opinion yesterday by a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit provides yet another example of the Court’s pro-business tilt. It knocked down a rule by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) requiring employers to post notices about the rights of workers, such as joining a union or advocating for safer working conditions. In a post for AFL-CIO NOW, Mike Hall calls the NLRB rule “commonsense and evenhanded,” noting that such notices also inform workers that they do not have to join a union. But the D.C. Circuit found a way to side with corporations that aren’t especially eager to inform workers of their rights pursuant to the National Labor Relations Act.

    That opinion follows one from earlier in the year, Canning v. NLRB, where the D.C. Circuit invalidated the president’s appointments to the five-member NLRB. That opinion has been appealed by the Obama administration. In short, the three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit essentially redefined what a recess appointment is, one that differs greatly from practice and federal court precedent. (See Sec. 2 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution.)

    The D.C. Circuit has also proven hostile to environmental regulations that are often challenged by corporations. In a post for grist, the Constitutional Accountability Center’s Simon Lazarus and Doug Kendall say the D.C. Circuit, on “any given day … has the power to throw the environmental movement into complete disarray.” (They could have added to the great delight of many corporations or the Koch brothers.)

  • April 22, 2013

    by Ben Geman, writer of the E² Wire, the Environment and Energy blog, at The Hill. This piece is cross-posted on The Hill.

    Conservative groups and a dozen House Republicans are petitioning the Supreme Court to review an appellate decision that upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

    They’re taking aim at a June 2012 federal court ruling that protected several EPA decisions, including the “endangerment finding” that greenhouse gases threaten humans, that underpin the agency's existing and planned carbon regulations.

    “Although seemingly disjointed in their promulgation, taken together these rules create a comprehensive, integrated program that gives EPA regulatory jurisdiction over a breadth of human activity unparalleled in the history of American governance,” states the petition Friday from the conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation.

    Twelve GOP lawmakers, including Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who is a Tea Party favorite, and Reps. Joe Barton (Texas), Tom Price (Ga.) and Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) joined the petition.

    Other backers of the petition include FreedomWorks, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Georgia Motor Trucking Association.

  • February 20, 2013

    The Atlantic reports that it’s now been nearly three years since a major piece of legislation made its way through the Senate. While the Senate had done things like passing a highway bill, and reapproving the import-export bank, most of the Senate’s legislative agenda for the last two years has been lurching from crisis to crisis – like the deals the ended the fiscal cliff crisis of 2012 and the debt ceiling crisis of 2011. Even matters completely within the prevue of the Senate, and once considered routine business, are becoming mired in partisan bickering. The Washington Post commented that the filibuster of Chuck Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense, the first ever, marked the beginning of a 60-vote Senate. The president’s judicial nominations have fared even worse, with one nominee, Caitlin Halligan, waiting nearly two years for confirmation to the D.C. Circuit. Major action, such as comprehensive legislation on immigration reform and bold measures on climate change, is needed as are judges to fill vacancies on the federal bench (and there are a lot of them), but progress looks bleak in this atmosphere thanks largely to one of the nation’s two major political parties. The American people deserve far better than a Congress full of preening politicians constantly consumed with holding onto or expanding power.  

    -- ESA   

  • January 28, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Nearly a week after providing a staunchly liberal vision for a second term –– leading law professors, attorneys and other advocates are providing via an ACS project ideas and proposals for the administration’s second term. (Regarding the tone and vision of the president’s second Inaugural Address, some apparently believe the president was merely defending New Deal programs and policy the Clinton administration had supposedly advanced.)

    The ACS project, “Toward a More Perfect Union: A Progressive Blueprint for the Second Term,” was recently launched with three Issue Briefs:

    Former U.S. Pardon Attorney Margaret Colgate Love looks at why the presidential pardon power “has lost its vigor, its integrity, and its sense of purpose,” and argues why it should be reinvigorated, as well as offering examples, many from the states, for reforming the process.

    Brookings Visiting Fellow Russell Wheeler examines the Obama administration’s record of filling federal judgeships during his first term and puts forth ideas for fixing a judicial nominations process that has become increasingly rancorous and ineffective. In a Brookings’ Up Frontblog post, Wheeler, a leading expert on the federal bench, explains, in part, why the process needs reforming. “First, judicial vacancies, which declined in Clinton’s and Bush’s first terms, increased during Obama’s. Empty judgeships hamper the federal courts’ ability to do their jobs – to sort out contractual disputes and other matters that, left unresolved, contribute to economic uncertainty, as well dispose of criminal complaints and adjudicate claims of discrimination and civil liberties violations.”

    University of Michigan Law School Professor David M. Uhlmann urges the Obama administration to exert great presidential leadership on climate change. Uhlmann, director of the law school’s Environmental Law and Policy Program, noted the small steps the Obama administration took during its first term. But, citing the work of climate scientists, Uhlmann warns that if our country fails “to limit greenhouse gas emissions, searing heat, widespread drought, destructive storms, and massive flooding will become commonplace.” Moreover, Uhlmann argues that climate change will be a “legacy issue” for the president – “either because he helped chart a course toward a sustainable future or because America failed to act while it was still possible to prevent catastrophic climate change. Uhlmann’s Issue Brief goes on to provide ways for the president to act, even without the help of Congress, to put the nation on a path toward sustainable resources.

    During his second inaugural, the president reminded us that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action” and unlike too many of his predecessors lauded the noble goal of advancing equality. Obama also took a shot at right-wing economic policy that is all about coddling the superwealthy at the expense of everyone else.

    The president also called for collective action on climate change.