Emissions ruling shows the GOP's 'small government' talk is just that

Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2007

One durable Republican staple is the alleged commitment to "small government." I've heard this repeatedly during the GOP presidential debates. The candidates declare that the feds should butt out, that "one size fits all" policies enacted by Washington would burden the states. On everything from guns to abortion, the GOP politicians say that states should be allowed to come up with solutions that reflect the will of their own people. This is supposed to be a cornerstone of the conservative ethos.

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But it's really just pap for the stump. In reality, and for a fresh insight into contemporary Republican hypocrisy, let us behold (yet again) the Bush administration in action.

A couple days ago, the Bush team - acting through the Environmental Protection Agency, in violation of the law that created the EPA, and in defiance of federal court rulings - decreed that California, and 16 other states would not be permitted to act on their own to reduce global-warming emissions from automobiles. The EPA explained that it favors a "national solution" (i.e., one size fits all) over what it calls "a confusing patchwork of state rules."

The catch, of course, is that the EPA - once considered a protector of the environment, before the Bush team got hold of it - has no interest in a "national solution" to cut the carbon-dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. The Bush EPA fought the idea for years, claiming that the 1970 Clean Air Act failed to specify carbon dioxide as a pollutant. It hasn't budged in that belief, even though, back on April 2, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the '70 law gave the Bush EPA authority to regulate those emissions.

There's another key feature of that '70 law (which created the EPA, and which was signed by Republican President Richard Nixon): It allows states to set their own clean-air standards in the absence of federal action, as long as the feds give their permission in the form of waivers. Over the last four decades, California has sought 50 waivers from the feds, and it has received 50 waivers. Until now. The EPA administrator's ruling last week overrode the advice of his own legal staff.

President Bush said recently that EPA chief Stephen Johnson made his decision entirely on his own. There are two ways we can react to that assertion. We can either believe that this president is telling the whole truth ... or we can simply note the fact that auto industry executives, who were adamantly opposed to California's initiative ... aired their complaints during October and November in a series of meetings with Vice President Cheney and high-ranking White House officials.

The White House and Johnson insist that the states' actions are unnecessary anyway, given the congressional passage this week of a new law that would set tougher fuel-mileage standards (while not tackling the global-warming problem nearly as vigorously as the states have intended). . . .

The bottom line: The traditional conservative rhetoric about "small government" and "states' rights" bears no relation to how power is actually exercised by conservatives in Washington.

• Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.



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