Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Chutzpah over States' Rights

Conflicts over legislative authority between individual states and the Federal government have been around literally as long as the United States of America, since such conflicts figured heavily in the drafting of the Constitution. Therefore it should be no surprise that such conflicts erupt into acts of chutzpah, particularly in light of the predilection the current Executive Branch has for such acts. Indeed, while our President and Secretary of State seem to have an almost innate talent for "slam-dunk chutzpah," we still get occasional glimpses of full-court team work where other key members of the Administration get to sink a shot or two. This week the ball was passed to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who demonstrated that she could commit that particularly Administrative style of chutzpah with the best of them while fighting for one of the Administration's favorite causes: defending those responsible for environmental damage against a growing global trend of environmental responsibility and planning.

To pursue the basketball metaphor, one might say that the ball was first passed to Peters last week when President George W. Bush finally put his stake in the ground on the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. As was noted at the Times Online Web site, the general reaction was that it was not much of a stake:

President Bush has been criticised by environment groups after he called for a halt to the growth of US greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 but offered few ideas on how to achieve it.

The proposal on global warming, which fell short of European proposals, was announced as the US Congress prepares to consider more ambitious plans and before international climate change negotiations take place in Paris.

Mr Bush offered only broad principles, such as focusing on emissions from the power industry, and rejected new taxes, abandoning nuclear power and trade barriers.

This now brings us to Peters' part in this game through an early-morning report by Zachary Coile from the Washington Bureau of the San Francisco Chronicle:

When the Bush administration announced proposed regulations Tuesday to raise fuel economy standards for cars and trucks to 31.6 miles per gallon by 2015, even some environmentalists applauded. But then they read the fine print.

Tucked deep into a 417-page "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" was language by the Transportation Department stating that more stringent limits on tailpipe emissions embraced by California and 17 other states are "an obstacle to the accomplishment" of the new federal standards and are "expressly and impliedly preempted" by federal law.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown called it a covert assault on California's rules. Environmentalists said the language will be used by automakers in their legal challenges to two recent federal court rulings that sided with the states.

The language showed that beneath the bipartisan veneer of support for new fuel economy standards - approved by Congress and signed by President Bush in December - the conflict is still raging between the White House and the states over who will set the nation's first limits on greenhouse gases.

Now, just to make it clear that this is not another case of local bias, at least two of those "17 other states" have been pursuing their cause (successfully until now) through the proper legal channels:

The Supreme Court ruled in the Massachusetts vs. EPA case last year that the Transportation Department's authority to set fuel economy standards should not impede other efforts under the Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gases. California traditionally has had special authority under the Clean Air Act to set limits on air pollutants that are tougher than federal standards.

A federal judge in Vermont ruled in September that the state rules do not conflict with federal mileage standards, and a Fresno court in December found that both California and the EPA are empowered to set limits on vehicle emissions.

This legal history provided Peters with the opportunity to exhibit her chutzpah with a little flourish:

In its new document, the Transportation Department said, "We respectfully disagree with the two district court rulings" and noted that an appeal has been filed by automakers.

It is no surprise that, in an ideological battle between the automobile industry and the global environment, our Administration should side with the former; nor is it a surprise that such a battle should find its way onto the grounds of the Department of Transportation. However, given the opportunity to act, the Department managed to do so with that style of chutzpah that seems to have become a trademark of the Administration as a whole. So, if that Administration decided that it was Peters' turn for a Chutzpah of the Week award, then I am happy to oblige. Let it not be said that I refuse to cooperate with the Bush Administration on all matters!

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