Columns » Ernest Dumas

Federalism, Bush-style



Not content to be only a passive observer of despoliation and plunder, the administration of George W. Bush set out to do what no previous corporate-friendly government had done. It made sure that no responsible state government could come to the aid of the people either.

In just the latest of many federal initiatives to blunt environmental and economic regulation by state governments, Bush's Environmental Protection Agency last month denied a waiver to the state of California and ultimately at least 16 other states (alas, not Arkansas) to implement their own automobile tailpipe standards, which would force carmakers to sharply improve fuel economy and cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 percent in new cars and light trucks they sold in those states by 2016.

Driven by California and other states, a growing panic over global warming and a blunt decision about carbon emissions by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court, Congress and the president finally passed a law slightly raising fuel-economy standards and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2020. On the day Bush signed the bill, his EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson, denied a waiver for California to implement far tougher rules.

Johnson is a political appointee whose job is to see that the agency's policies mesh with the president's interests if not necessarily the national interest. It turns out that the agency's own scientific and technical staff had told him the opposite of his ruling. Two months before he denied the waiver, Johnson's staff gave him a report saying that “compelling and extraordinary conditions” justified the waiver for California and other states and that the agency was almost certain to lose if the case went to court. The 17 states sued this month.

American carmakers wanted the Bush administration to stop the states from setting higher standards for clean and efficient fuel usage because the manufacturers would face a patchwork of different rules although the other states largely embraced the California standards.

Congress installed the first fuel-economy standards for vehicles in 1975 after the first Arab oil embargo and they produced dramatic results, driving up the average fuel usage to 26.2 miles per gallon in 1986. But until December the standards had not been raised again and the yearly average economy of the new fleet of vehicles has never reached that level again.

The Bush administration's battle to protect polluting industries and financial predators from state legislatures and regulators began almost from the day he took office. It has chipped away at Nixon-era environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, which has put it at loggerheads with many states.

For five years, the administration fought the attorney generals of nearly all the states (no, not Arkansas's) to protect electric power companies from having to install equipment to clean the poisons from the smokestacks of old coal-burning plants. In 2002, the EPA changed the rules so that plants could more easily avoid installing the equipment when they retrofitted the old plants, which were grandfathered under the Clean Air Act but were required to go clean if they made significant modifications.

Here's why it makes a difference: Scientists estimate that the failure to install pollution controls at 51 plants that have been the subject of enforcement actions is responsible for 5,000 to 9,000 premature deaths and 80,000 to 120,000 asthma attacks every year.

The Clinton administration's EPA, supported by a number of states, cracked down on the abuses by the power companies, so when Bush came to power his EPA changed the rules to let utilities escape pollution modifications. The attorneys general of nearly all the states challenged the new rules (the Arkansas and Texas attorneys general quietly in 2003 intervened on the side of the power companies and EPA) and the federal courts have generally backed the states. Last October eight states and several organizations reached a historic settlement in an EPA suit undertaken under Clinton against American Electric Power, which agreed to install $4.6 billion worth of pollution controls on old coal plants, fund $60 million worth of environmental mitigation projects and pay a civil fine of $15 million. AEP is the company building a new coal-fired plant in Hempstead County.

Public health is not the only victim. At least some of the fallout of the subprime credit implosion and the current economic meltdown can be tracked to the administration's doorstep. The Bush administration, along with a few key congressional Democrats and banks, undermined the ability of state governments to protect people from lending fraud and other abuses.

Bush's Treasury Department in 2004 nullified the laws of a number of states, notably Georgia, that applied to lending at national banks. Georgia was the first state to try to curb the flow of easy credit to subprime lenders by telling the investors in the secondary market that they could be liable if they bought loans that were deemed predatory under state law. Other states — New Mexico, New York, New Jersey — followed suit. Banks went to Bush's Treasury Department and asked for help. Over the objections of attorneys general and most state bank commissioners, Treasury nullified state laws as they applied to national banks because, it said, they were entirely a federal responsibility.

Who could not be philosophical when the banks reaped the whirlwind? But, as with the government's environmental rulings, the ultimate victims, the rest of us, did not deserve it.

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