By James Goodwin, Center for Progressive Reform
Today, CPR Member Scholar Emily Hammond is testifying at a Senate subcommittee hearing that will examine four bills that amount to “rifle shot” attacks on the Clean Air Act’s public health and environmental protections. Hammond’s testimony before the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee casts in powerful terms what is at stake with these bills, highlighting how they contribute to the Trump administration’s own assault on public safeguards. She also explains how these bills and the administration’s actions are grossly out of step with the policy goals of the Clean Air Act and its more than 40 years of success in saving lives and protecting the environment.
Without getting into the technical details, these bills are designed to shield tiny but favored industry groups – namely, manufacturers of bricks, wood stoves, after-market auto racing equipment, and diesel generators – from their responsibilities under the Clean Air Act. As each of these industries contributes a disproportionately large amount of harmful pollutants relative to their size in the overall economy, the bills should outrage other industrial sectors that are shouldering their own air pollution reduction responsibilities, however grudgingly.
But more than that, these bills should outrage the public because such legislative favors mean that these industries can continue to shift the costs of their polluting activities onto the rest of us while their corporate officers and shareholders can keep piling up the money that would have been spent on cleaning up their act. The wood stoves bill, Hammond notes, would lead to between 800 and 900 premature deaths every year. And for what?
Hammond’s testimony boils down to two keys points. First, the Clean Air Act has for over four decades made us healthier and protected the environment for us and future generations, all while permitting successful economic growth and job creation. Second, the Trump administration is already in the midst of its own attack on the Clean Air Act, and that attack should concern Congress greatly. As she puts it, “The Trump Administration is failing to carry out Congress’s mandate to ensure clean air.”
That second point is worth reflecting upon because in saner times, it would have caused members of Congress – regardless of party affiliation – to sit up and take notice. In saner times, evidence that the executive branch was thumbing its nose so flagrantly at the legislative branch would have triggered strong feelings of institutional loyalty. Investigative hearings would be held. Responsible administration officials would be called in and dressed down by both sides of the aisle.
Instead, conservatives in Congress have contrived somehow to do less than nothing. Their response to the Trump administration’s failure to carry out its most fundamental of Article II responsibilities to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed”? Turn a blind eye and instead dole out special favors to favored industries.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt often describes his agenda as bringing the agency “back to basics.” Conservatives like Pruitt are experts at developing such anodyne-sounding messaging as cover for attacks on the public interest. With them, where there are yawns, usually there is fire.
That Pruitt’s agenda stands in such stark contrast to the real “back to basics” lessons outlined in Hammond’s testimony provides damning confirmation of what Pruitt and the broader Trump administration are setting out to achieve. The fact of the matter is public interest laws like the Clean Air Act are good policies – good public investments, if you must – that have served us very well. Unlike today, earlier iterations of Congress took seriously their responsibility of engaging in domestic policymaking in support of the general welfare and holding the executive branch to account for enforcing those policies.
It’s telling that Hammond, as a member of the public, has to present so simple a message to an audience like the Senate. She has a compelling message and is a compelling messenger. Let’s hope the members of the subcommittee are prepared to listen.