Thursday, December 20, 2007

Regulatory Chutzpah

One thing I have to say about the Executive branch of our Federal Government is that it never seems to be at a loss in coming up with Chutzpah of the Week award candidates. This week's award winner is Stephen L. Johnson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It has not been particularly surprising that, under the Bush Administration, the EPA has kept a pretty low profile, so low that some of us were beginning to wonder if it still existed. However, the EPA is back in the spotlight; but the light is not a particularly friendly one. It all comes down to a story that Richard Simon and Janet Wilson wrote for today's Los Angeles Times with the following lead:

The Bush administration Wednesday denied California's bid to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, dealing a blow to the state's attempts to combat global warming and prompting an immediate vow from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to take the decision to court.

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Stephen L. Johnson denied the state's request to implement its own landmark law, noting that an energy bill signed by President Bush earlier in the day would go a long way toward reducing emissions throughout the United States. The bill provides the most significant increase in vehicle fuel economy standards in more than three decades.

Is this nothing more than a pissing contest between presidential and gubernatorial authority? One answer may reside in Johnson's own words:

The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution, not a confusing patchwork of state rules.

One might think that all Johnson was doing was invoking a clever metaphor in support of the need for a national agenda to overrule any individual statewide policies. However, Simon and Wilson seem to have figured out who was actually writing Johnson's script:

David McCurdy, president and chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said in a prepared statement that a "patchwork quilt of inconsistent and competing fuel economy programs at the state level would only have created confusion, inefficiency and uncertainty for automakers and consumers."

Now we can understand McCurdy's pain. Schwarzenegger's plan would regulate what vehicles can be sold in California. This is in the interest of the vulnerability of much of California geography to emissions pollution, but it means that, as far as American automotive products are concerned, the California market is important enough that the state standards would trump any national standards. Needless to say, if foreign automotive products do meet the standards, then they stand to gain market share from the new California regulations; and that is the real reason why McCurdy is screaming in agony.

This takes us to the question of where the chutzpah resides. From my point of view, McCurdy is doing exactly what he is expected to do as a chief spokesperson for American automobile manufacturers; and that is not chutzpah. Johnson, on the other hand, through his little linguistic slip of the tongue, has put out a rather blatant signal that, with the blessing of the Bush Administration, he is acting as a shill for those automobile manufactures, placing the need to prop up their failing businesses over the need to clean up California's air. By being so overt about what Federal priorities really are, Johnson has earned himself the week's Chutzpah of the Week award!

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