US Conservatives Raise a Stink Over Meddlesome Government

Thursday, 03 February 2011 08:49 By Paul Krugman, Krugman & Co. | Op-Ed | name.

US Conservatives Raise a Stink Over Meddlesome Government
Tea Party organizers set up a flag near a rally site in El Paso, Texas, last year. The group is gaining a stronger foothold in politics. (Photo: Drew Angerer / The New York Times)

Conservatives are convinced that the Environmental Protection Agency is messing with Texas.

The state has been battling the federal agency for years over pollution regulations, and now it is suing, insisting that the agency is abusing its power. Also, officials say that forcing the state to adopt stricter emissions rules will cost jobs and lead to hardship. In fact, late last year, the E.P.A. announced it would issue greenhouse-gas permits in Texas because the state refuses to do so.

In a radio interview on Jan. 10, a defiant Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, declared himself entirely opposed to federal regulation of carbon-dioxide emissions: “It is almost the height of insanity of bureaucracy to have the E.P.A. regulating something that is emitted by all living things.”

Joe Romm, a physicist and editor of the climate-science-focused blog Climate Progress, had some fun at Mr. Abbott’s expense, writing in a Jan. 17 update that, “of course, the carbon dioxide emissions from living things don’t throw the carbon-cycle horribly out of balance — industrial emissions do.”

In his discussion of the “Texas farce,” Mr. Romm jokingly pointed out that, based on Mr. Abbott’s rationale, people should adopt an equally laissez-faire attitude toward sewage regulation.

In fact, there was a time when conservatives did argue in favor of doing nothing about effluent of any kind. In the years leading up to the Great Stink of 1858 — when the combination of a hot summer and the overpowering stench of untreated waste in the streets finally convinced the British government to build a sewer system in London — The Economist editorialized against any such foolish notion. In an 1848 article the editors declared that “suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions; they cannot be got rid of; and the impatient attempts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation … have always been more productive of evil than good.”

Or, to put it in the modern vernacular, stuff happens.

A similar mind-set endures in the United States today, not only among Texas officials, but also among congressional politicians who argue that the meddlesome federal government has no right to ban, say, child labor.

Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah recently posted a videotaped lecture on his YouTube channel that shows him explaining that “as reprehensible as child labor is, and as much as it ought to be abandoned, that’s something that has to be done by state legislators, not by members of Congress.”

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Given the direction the United States is heading, I would not be surprised if the anti-sewer movement made a comeback, nor would I be very surprised to see some elected representatives, even those who know better, holding their noses and going along. 

Backstory: Targeting Regulation

Since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives at the beginning of the year, the conservative, antigovernment Tea Party movement has expanded its influence in both the House and Senate, vowing to dismantle or change some long-standing policies that the group says are unconstitutional.

Earlier this month, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky announced plans to team up with senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah to form a Tea Party caucus within the Republican Party, in order to challenge various rules on government spending and regulation. In fact, Mr. Lee is already focusing on one federal law that he says should be abandoned: He maintains that the federal prohibition against child labor violates states’ rights. State legislators — not Congress — should have the authority to regulate state commerce, he says.

But the Tea Party is not the only group poised to challenge the federal government — Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, is waging a similar battle against federal authority. Texas is the only state in the nation that has refused to issue greenhouse-gas permits for industrial businesses. Mr. Abbott has sued the Environmental Protection Agency, tasked with enforcing environmental regulations passed by Congress, on the grounds that it lacks authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

The E.P.A. disagrees. Al Armendariz, the agency’s regional director in Texas, told The Houston Chronicle recently that “the governor and the attorney general see some value in fighting the federal government for their own sake … it’s bad public policy.”

Mr. Armendariz said that 130 refineries and factories operating under flexible emissions permits issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality need to be brought into federal compliance, according to the Chronicle.

© 2010 The New York Times Company

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.

Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including "The Return of Depression Economics" (2008) and "The Conscience of a Liberal" (2007).

Copyright 2010 The New York Times.

Last modified on Thursday, 03 February 2011 09:44