In his State of the Union address, President Obama gave the country fair warning when he said he would try to rule by executive action if Congress did not follow his orders. He began to make good on that pledge yesterday by announcing that he would enact new fuel standards for heavy-duty trucks. Along with other new regulations that are being promulgated without benefit of the approval of Congress, the big truck rule is part of the president’s effort to show the world that he is working to save the planet from climate change.
But while energy efficiency and a potential reduction in the amount of oil consumption sound like ideas that everyone can get behind, the problem here is twofold. On the one hand, the imposition of the new regulations will almost certainly raise the costs of these vehicles as well as make them less safe. That’s no problem for large corporations that stand to benefit from “green” subsidies, but is a huge obstacle for small and mid-sized businesses and independent truckers. While Obama continues to insist his green policies are good for business, the new rules raise the prospect of more crony capitalism. Combined with other executive orders that may wind up shutting down hundreds of coal-fired power plants—a potential catastrophe for an industry that is still an important element of the nation’s power grid—Obama’s executive orders present a peril to an economy that is still slowed by a weak recovery.
But just as dangerous is the spectacle of a president exercising untrammeled power without having to worry about constitutional checks and balances. While liberals are delighted about the prospect of the president ignoring Congress and imposing regulations that the legislative branch has repeatedly rejected in order to advance their climate change agenda, the precedent is one that ought to scare both parties and build sympathy for the coming legal and legislative challenges to the president’s dictates.
The ostensible goal of a series of executive orders that are in the works is to reduce carbon emissions and allow the administration to demonstrate to the world that the U.S. is attempting to live by the same rules it is asking developing countries to respect. But given the slim chances that nations like China and India will ever be willing to adopt measures that similarly restrict their growing economies, the gesture tells us more about the desire of liberals to re-engineer the economy than any concrete measure that will actually affect the global climate, even assuming that the science Obama cites to justify his policies is as settled as he claims.
As with every other such measure, big companies that stand to benefit from some aspect of the president’s rules can always be found to back up the administration. But the nexus of crony capitalism and green activism is one that is highly vulnerable to manipulation and possible corruption. The new environmental regulations the president is imposing on the economy without congressional approval are reminiscent of the same desire to pick winners and losers that have led to past problems such as the Solyndra scandals and other green boondoggles.
The president is on firm legal ground when it comes to measures that can be justified as rules on carbon because of the courts granting the Environmental Protection Agency the power to regulate emissions. But the vast scale of what is being contemplated on coal as well as trucks grants the executive branch the kind of power to micromanage the economy that recalls the first days of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal when the courts let him run roughshod over the nation.
But the aggressive push for climate change is about more than Obama’s desire to shape his legacy as the president who would, as he said in his megalomaniacal 2008 boast, slow “the rise of the oceans” and “heal” the planet. What we are now witnessing is an attempt to create an imperial presidency that seeks to govern without Congress at home as opposed to the traditional model in which commanders in chief conduct wars and foreign policy without being held accountable.
It is not enough to claim, as Obama does, that he is working on behalf of a righteous cause and that he is tired of waiting for Congress to do what he believes is the right thing. In a democracy, the people and their elected representatives rule. The president can lead but he must respect the rule of law. That is a principle that this administration appears to be willing to discard along with old trucks and coal. But even if you share Obama’s fears about the climate, his desire to govern as a benevolent despot is one that should concern liberals as well as conservatives. Though Democrats may be under the impression that they will hold the White House forever, the next time a Republican is sitting in the Oval Office, they may recall their enthusiasm for Obama’s unconstitutional behavior with regret.