Washington Insider-- Friday

Sunstein on Limits to Presidential Powers

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Ethanol Proponent: RFS Jumpstarted Rural America’s Economy

Monte Shaw, Iowa Renewable Fuels Association leader, said the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which guarantees a market for corn-based ethanol and other biofuels, jumpstarted rural America’s economy. Shaw urged farm-state lawmakers to fight further EPA reductions to it.

In a hearing on USDA Rural Development Programs and their Economic Impact Across America before the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy, Shaw testified that properly supporting renewable fuels programs are vital to the well-being of rural America. “I think it can be fairly stated that no other effort to improve rural economies made the impact that renewable fuels did,” Shaw testified.

“Then, in late 2013, the Obama administration proposed RFS levels far below statutory levels. “The economic fallout was predictable and painful. The last two years have seen a dramatic downturn in the health of rural America. Corn prices plummeted, land values fell, farm income plunged, and agribusinesses laid off workers by the thousands.”

Shaw then noted that several Energy Title programs under the Farm Bill, including the Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels, the Renewable Energy for America Program and others, have provided a massive return on investment. “However, the effectiveness of these programs is reduced by a lack of consistent and timely funding.”

Shaw asked the Senate leaders to support other programs outside the 2014 Farm Bill that can boost rural economies. “The Renewable Fuel Standard, USDA’s Biofuels Infrastructure Partnership, and equalizing vapor pressure treatment for E10 and E15 are all additional programs you can support that are vital to the well-being of rural America.”


Senate Forging Ahead with Fiscal 2017 Spending Bills

Appropriations bills for Fiscal 2017 are on track for the Senate Appropriations Committee to begin moving them forward, possibly as soon as April 14.

The Senate plans to return to “regular order” to proceed with its appropriations bills, regardless of when the House starts bringing its own bills to the floor, according to congressional sources. Should the House fail to move appropriation bills forward, the Senate could use “shell bills” previously passed by the House and sent to the Senate, as a means to keep the Senate bills moving.

A discretionary spending cap of $1.07 trillion will be used in the Senate bills. That figure has drawn fire from GOP conservatives in the House who insist on a lower cap of $1.04 trillion, in line with previous spending levels under the so-called “sequester.”

To establish the $1.07 trillion cap, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., plans to officially “deem” it, which will allow appropriators guidance as they begin work on bills around Apr. 15.

Senate Democratic leaders expressed their support for McConnell’s plans for the upcoming appropriations bills, with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., saying she is “very excited about this process.”


Washington Insider: Sunstein on Limits to Presidential Powers

We are deep into the season of presidential candidate promises to all-but shift the earth in nearly ceaseless efforts to pander to voters. So, it is interesting to note that Bloomberg carried an article this week by Harvard Prof Cass Sunstein who directs Harvard Law’s program on behavioral economics and public policy. He cites President Harry Truman, who cautioned his successor, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower on challenges he faced. Truman predicted, “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

Sunstein was taking particular aim at current promises “to get rid of a whole host of executive actions from the Obama administration.” But there’s good reason to doubt how much would happen after the election, he says. The principal reason is simple: the law.

Sunstein uses as an example the often heard promises to reverse the EPA’s 2009 “endangerment finding,” which establishes that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare—the legal precondition for many of the administration’s regulations designed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but his comments could have applied to many other areas, as well.

Rolling back current programs likely will turn out to be “a lot harder than you might think,” Sunstein says.

He points out that climate change regulations include greenhouse-gas standards for cars and trucks; energy-efficiency standards for dozens of appliances, including refrigerators, clothes washers, clothes driers, and small motors; and restrictions on emissions from new and existing power plants. “A new president can’t just sign a piece of paper and make all these go away,” Sunstein says.

He then focuses on some of the detailed steps. “What [a new president] can do is to direct the heads of cabinet-level agencies to initiate a process to repeal them. Producing such a proposal often takes at least three months, and sometimes a year or more. The law then requires an extended period for public comments, usually two months or more. And after receiving comments, agencies usually take a while to finalize their proposals (three months would be fast).”

If the executive branch operates at great speed, it might be able to get through the process of eliminating a single regulation in about a year. If the new administration operates in a more regular fashion, and actually wants to get rid of a host of regulations, two years — half of a presidential term — would be pretty speedy.

However, Sunstein’s main point is that this “stylized” picture massively understates the effort because many sectors of the economy have adjusted their behavior to the endangerment finding and to the recent climate-change regulations. Automobile companies are producing more fuel-efficient cars. Appliance companies are selling products that are far more energy-efficient. Important energy companies have moved away from coal and toward natural gas in response to economic incentives.

Then there are the federal courts, which will strike down any actions they deem inconsistent with law. “Courts have already upheld the endangerment finding, and it would probably be impossible for a new administration to reverse it, because the science so clearly supports it,” Sunstein thinks.

If the EPA is working to eliminate greenhouse-gas regulations for new cars, it will not be allowed to deny that that man-made climate change is a serious problem, since climate-change “denialism” would be unlikely to stand up in court. Nor would the EPA be permitted to deny that greenhouse gases are “pollutants” within the meaning of the Clean Air Act, since the Supreme Court resolved that issue back in 2007, Sunstein says.

That doesn’t mean that Presidents and administrations have no power. Certainly, President Eisenhower found areas where his administration could and did have impacts as well as those that challenged his power, as Harry Truman predicted. And, the governing issues likely will turn out to be different than those in campaign debates, and to have differing political momentum.

You might argue that no one really takes these promises seriously, but that turns out not to be true. Some do. Thus, it is good advice to pay close attention to the campaigns and their promises and push hard for the commitments you respect. Sunstein provides a glimmer of reality about the process, but it is mostly the individual voters who must sort through the cascade of promises as they appear and decide how they should be interpreted, Washington Insider believes.

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