On Capitol Hill, the ship of state is so bereft of rudder and sail that the crew is jumping overboard. The latest to abandon ship is Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who minced no words about the dysfunctional Congress he is choosing to leave.
Forget for a moment about health care and financial reform. On national energy and environmental issues, which have been stalled in the congressional queue, we have a critical national security threat, a danger to public health and welfare, and national policy that encourages American families to inadvertently fund terrorists.
Those are among the reasons the paralyzing partisanship on Capitol Hill is so serious a dereliction of duty.
So what can the President of the United States do? Quite a lot if he's willing to use the executive powers he's been given by the Constitution, the courts and past Congresses.
That's what President Obama is planning now, according to the New York Times. "With much of his legislative agenda stalled in Congress," the Times reports, "President Obama and his team are preparing an array of actions using his executive power to advance energy, environmental, fiscal and other domestic policy priorities."
"We are reviewing a list of presidential executive orders and directives to get the job done across a front of issues," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told the Times.
Let's hope this is more than a shot across Congress's bow. We've fallen to a point at which the relationship between the Executive and Legislative branches is not so much checks and balances as mutual assured gridlock. For several years now, much to the discomfort of leaders as philosophically diverse as George Bush and Carol Browner, more environmental policy seems to be made by the Judicial Branch than by the other two.
Before elaborating on the president's powers, let's recall why energy and environment are so much more important to Main Street than gas molecules accumulating in the atmosphere. There's American competitiveness and jobs in the emerging global green economy, of course. But amidst the ridiculous arguments about leaked e-mails and whether blizzards on the East Coast prove that climate change isn't real, America's military and intelligence communities have been trying to tell us something for the past several years: If you believe in a strong and secure America, if you support our troops, if you don't want part of every gasoline dollar to end up financing terrorism, you need to support our transition away from carbon-intensive fuels, to the type of "clean energy economy" President Obama advocates.
I've quoted often in the past from the important work of the Military Advisory Panel at the Center for Naval Analysis, whose conclusions have been embraced by other flag officers and intelligence agencies, but three quotes deserve repeating:
• U.S. dependence on fossil fuels undermines economic stability, which is critical to national security;
• The U.S. should not pursue energy options inconsistent with the national response to climate change. Diversifying energy sources and moving away from fossil fuels where possible is critical to future energy security;
• Some of the attacks on our troops and on American civilians have been supported by funds from the sale of oil. Our nation's energy choices have saved lives; they have also cost lives.
I'm among the bloggers who've been sharply critical of the White House for not wanting to "get out ahead of Congress" on these issues. For example, although the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, President Obama has embraced the very low goal established in the House-approved Waxman-Markey bill, and he's made even that goal contingent upon Congress passing a final climate bill.
In many other instances during his first year in office, however, Obama has made good use of his presidential powers to advance U.S. leadership on energy and the environment. It's important that he expand on that record. He has no lack of ideas or authority. Dozens of organizations and initiatives, including the Presidential Climate Action Project, have submitted scores of recommendations to the Obama team since the 2008 election on energy policy and climate change.
Before Obama took office, the Center for Energy and Environmental Security at the University of Colorado Law School analyzed executive authority as it relates to energy and climate policy. The Center reviewed 96 provisions in current U.S. law where climate change, global warming or greenhouse gases are mentioned explicitly; it also reviewed 370 executive orders going back to 1937. It identified and created a searchable database of 112 relevant statutory delegations of authority for presidents to address energy and climate. The Center's overall conclusion is that "Congress has delegated to the President substantial authority to develop climate change policy and organize and manage federal operations to address the issue."
The President will have to walk a careful line to avoid the impression he wants to lead like the Bush-and-Cheney White House where national laws, international treaties and the U.S. Constitution itself were regarded as subservient to executive whims. But grounded in the public interest and the president's legitimate powers, it's a line Obama can walk and defend.
If President Obama fully uses his authority, the United States can continue making progress toward a clean energy economy. Meantime, the November election is an opportunity to begin fixing our broken Congress by removing the Members who are putting their petulant partisanship ahead of the nation's welfare.