In the 2010 midterm elections Republicans ran on a platform of repeal and replace — cancel President Obama’s signature health-care law, and replace it with a GOP plan. After taking control of the House, Republicans passed a repeal of the health care law, but they haven’t unified behind a proposal to replace it. The status quo before the law, critics rightly point out, is hardly an alternative. The GOP can attack what it doesn’t like, but can it govern?
Now, Republicans have outlined a jobs agenda that mainly consists of eviscerating federal regulations they don’t like, with a particular focus on rules designed to protect the environment. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., released a memorandum to GOP lawmakers on Monday that targets the 10 most “job-destroying” regulations in the federal register. Seven of them are rules that the Environmental Protection Agency is on track to impose.
But what is the GOP alternative to EPA restrictions on mercury, acid gases, ozone and greenhouse emissions? Cantor’s memo talks only about delaying and weakening proposed rules, not some different approach to environmental protection. Maybe we just don’t need any more of that?
There are undoubted costs to environmental regulations. But there are also large benefits. Cantor’s document just doesn’t mention any. A recent Office of Management and Budget review found that existing EPA regulations, particularly those dealing with the air, are among the costliest to comply with — but also among the most valuable, with benefits often vastly exceeding costs, dollar for dollar. In fact, part of the reason the price of environmental regulation is known is because the EPA must run rigorous cost-benefit analyses on its rules before finalizing them. That’s how it reckons that every dollar spent on some of the measures Cantor targets — those cutting cross-state particulate and ozone pollution — will result in $30 in economic benefits from employees taking fewer sick days, a lower incidence of many chronic illnesses and fewer early deaths. And let’s not even get into climate change.
In response to a question on whether the GOP has an alternative plan for environmental protection, a Cantor spokeswoman e-mailed: “Regardless of the regulation, House Republicans believe they should be written in a way that will not have a negative impact on the economy or make it harder for businesses small and large to create jobs.”
Republicans would do the country a service if they made a serious case that the EPA isn’t maximizing the net benefits of its regulations or if they argued that government standard-setting is an expensive way to achieve the valuable ends of air and water protection, and then proposed an alternative that cut out the bureaucrats. The question of just how the government should intervene to protect air and water isn’t settled. But they explicitly oppose more decentralized, market-based anti-pollution measures, too.
If Republicans block putting a price on carbon emissions or other pollutants, and if they criticize federal money being spent on things such as clean energy research, they leave anyone concerned with global warming or ambient air and water quality with few choices but to press for robust executive-branch regulation already allowed under the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. It might not be pretty, and it might not be cheap. But it’s almost certainly better than doing little or nothing, which seems to be the GOP’s plan.
Stephen Stromberg is a columnist for washingtonpost.com.