Walking Down the Avenue

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Folks ask me, almost daily, "How is Obama doing?" My answer usually comes in two parts. At one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Executive Branch (even with still-incomplete teams in place) is moving with stunning speed on environmental and energy issues to make "change that works." For example, earlier this week Vice-President Biden released a "Recovery Through Retrofit" report that details how home-energy retrofits can create jobs and reduce energy costs, while the Department of Energy simultaneously put some money where the Administration's mouth is by announcing funding for PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) financing programs.

Then today, while President Obama was at MIT pushing for passage of a climate bill, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson was announcing an agreement to sign a settlement of lawsuits brought by environmental organizations demanding that the EPA establish plant-by-plant air-pollution emission limits for mercury -- the final step in the abandonment of the long-discredited Bush administration policy towards that potent neurotoxin: "Mercury -- a little bit'll do you."

And yesterday, the Department of the Interior proposed designating more than 200 million acres of Alaska's coast and waters as "critical habitat" for polar bears -- the first step toward providing protection for the bears from local stressors that make their survival more difficult. The core threat to the bears, of course, remains climate change, which could reduce the sea-ice hunting habitat on which they depend and in other ways disrupt their food chain. So, while we should applaud the Administration for doing what the law and common sense require to protect the bear, we mustn't lose sight of the larger remaining challenges.

Which brings us to the relationship between the White House and the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue: the Congress, where things are going much less smoothly. Senator John Kerry returned from a successful, if grueling, effort to get Afghan President Hamid Karzai to agree to a run-off by November -- but he was unable to get his fellow Democratic committee chairs to agree to bring climate legislation to the Senate floor by Thanksgiving so there would be some hope of further progress before the UN Conference in Copenhagen.

We're paying a very high price for having one branch of Congress play by rules under which a minority can block progress so that, in effect, no one has the power to make decisions. Senator Inhofe and his fellow Republicans on the Senate Environmental Panel threatened to delay markup of the climate bill next week by refusing to make up a quorum: "The only leverage we have is the quorum leverage, and if we get stonewalled, we'll use it."

It's time for the public to tell senators on both sides of the aisle that they need to start legislating as if it were a team sport.