07/28/2011 10:50 am ET Updated Sep 27, 2011

Selective States' Rights

Congressional conservative Republicans present themselves as ideological champions of states' rights and a diminished role for the federal government. But when states' rights clash with their ideological agenda, they can reverse field on a dime and become stalwart centrists.

The double standard is very much on display in the enforcement of federal pollution laws. In the case of the Clean Water Act (CWA), Republican lawmakers complain that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is overreaching and hurting the economy (i.e. their corporate donors) by imposing a "one size fits all" anti-pollution standard on states. Hence, lawmakers in the House have passed a "dirty water" bill that requires Washington to step back and give each state the flexibility to have the last word on pollution regulations within its boundaries, even if such regulations are not in line with federal standards. The House legislators contend that each state is the best judge of how its waterways should be regulated, a policy that ignores the trans-boundary scope of such pollution and thus has no future in the Senate or with President Obama.

Contrast the House GOP's willingness to grant the states leeway to lowball federal water quality standards with its reluctance to give the states the flexibility to institute more stringent anti-air pollution standards than the minimum federal requirement. With their corporate contributors facing higher compliance costs, the Republicans suddenly find "one size fits all" a lot more appealing. That explains why President George W. Bush's administration denied a waiver sought by California and 13 other states to impose a stricter tailpipe emission standard than the federal version.

Not surprisingly, the current House Republican majority has continued the Bush administration's policy and proposed an amendment to block California and 13 other states from improving on existing air pollution standards.

Federal authorities rightly saddle the states with limits on a floor, not a ceiling, in regard to pollution cleanup standards. Were states allowed to slide below the lowest common denominator, they could easily end up working at cross purposes to their detriment and that of the entire nation. Conversely, they should be permitted to be the best that they can be. Maybe it would rub off on laggards.

During the debate on the "Dirty Water Act," Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, was on target when he declared, "Clean water is an interstate issue that demands an interstate solution."

The Republicans need to look past their ideological correctness and recognize that only the federal government has the resources and overview to be the final arbiter on interstate waterways, and there should be no disincentives to excel.