2020 Election, Domestic Policy, Environment, Politics

An American Nationalist Voting Index – Conservation and the Environment

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite

Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I ask nothing of the nation except that it so behave as the farmer behaves with reference to his own children. The farmer is a good farmer who, having enabled the land to support himself and to provide for the education of his children, leaves it to them a little better than he found it himself. I believe the same thing of a nation.

Theodore Roosevelt, The New Nationalism, August 31, 1910

Score

Biden +.5 Trump -.5

The two men pictured above represented different conservation philosophies reminiscent of today’s environmental movement. Unlike Roosevelt, John Muir believed that conservation and development could not be reconciled.  Despite Muir’s famous overnight camping trip with TR in Yosemite Park, he voted for William Howard Taft in the 1912 election.  Muir eventually went on to found the Sierra Club.

The contrasting philosophies of TR and Muir are reflected in the environmental approaches of Biden and Trump. However, in the end, their policy differences largely even out.

Climate Change

The differences here could not be more stark.  Trump’s denial of climate science would have met with nothing but scorn from Roosevelt, but Biden’s elevation of the Paris Accord to totemic status despite its wholly voluntary nature would also have met with his disapproval (see my post “Theodore Roosevelt and Climate Change”). This earns Trump a -.5 while Biden receives a +.5.

Environmental Regulation

The Trump Administration embarked on a campaign to spur economic growth by rolling back environmental regulation, especially regarding climate change.  In the process, they threw out a lot of long-standing rules that provided important protections. For example, there was no need to relax auto emissions standards that were not affecting car sales but reduced our gasoline consumption. The withdrawal of rules limiting toxic air emissions from major industrial polluters will expose hundreds to mercury and other known hazardous air pollutants. These unnecessary rule changes mean the Administration deserve a -.5

Biden would restore both the necessary rules, but pursue its climate agenda through more rule-makings similar to those of the high-handed and elitist Obama EPA.  This would likely be a net drag on the economy and so earns Biden  a- .5 as well.

Parks and Public Lands

Here in Montana and the West, we have a love-hate relationship with our parks and public lands. We love the spectacle and the solitude of the wilderness but resent the arbitrary limits on agriculture and other uses imposed from Washington.  For example, the Wilderness Act of 1964 allowed the federal government to temporarily designate thousands of acres off limits to even some recreational use for decades.  The Trump Administration decided it was time to finalize those designations and begin to release some of the land for other uses.  This caused a huge controversy and became an issue in the campaign. Biden has established a goal of designating 30% of US land as wilderness, which would potentially end this review.

Trump has generally been a friend of the parks system, vetoing an attempt by his Interior Secretary to raise the entrance fees to national parks to $70. He also signed the Great American Outdoors Act, which dedicated $2 billion per year to rebuilding park infrastructure (see this post for more). However, he also has reduced the size of some new national monuments previously established by President Obama.

Both Trump and Biden earn +.5 scores on this issue.

Conclusion

Conservation was dear to Theodore Roosevelt’s heart precisely because he loved America and the beauty of its land.  A true American nationalist would seek to protect that beauty for both the present and future. Trump’s denial of climate change hurts his standing on the subject, while Biden’s commitments to the Muir wing of the environmental movement suggests a potential radicalism on environmental regulation and public lands that would stifle development.  Instead, the next administration should adopt the practice of Roosevelt’s farmer and seek to responsibly reconcile the many competing uses.

Coronavirus, Domestic Policy, Government

The Dangers of Executive Overreach

Theodore Roosevelt at his desk with papers

As this helpful article from the Smithsonian Magazine illustrates, the debate over the use of presidential executive orders to end-run Congress originated with Theodore Roosevelt.  In his conservationist zeal to protect unique land and monuments, TR pushed the limits of the Antiquities and Reclamation Acts. While we are all blessed by the resulting preservation of sights like the Grand Canyon, his expansive view of presidential power also resulted in abuses like FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans and President Truman’s attempt to seize the steel mills to prevent a strike. President Trump’s recent orders to provide partial relief for workers hit by the COVID-19 pandemic shows the limitations of the practice and its danger to our constitutional democracy.

This story from CNN sets forth the problems with these orders and why congressional action was required. The new $400 per month unemployment benefit may never materialize since it was not authorized to be distributed through the current unemployment insurance system. The payroll tax cut is really a deferral and so worker could be on the hook for a huge catch-up payment next year. Finally, the eviction protections simply consist of a study by the Secretary of Health and Human Services of ways to provide such protection.

When the last coronavirus relief effort stalled in March, I criticized both the President and Congress over their failure to reach agreement under the headline “Leaders Don’t Dither. They Decide”.  This relief bill should be more targeted toward the unemployed and essential workers on the front lines of combating the disease and supporting American society in dealing with it. However. dangling partial relief for them by a questionable legal method is not real leadership.  Leadership in our system of separation of powers often involves compromise. TR’s sympathy for those workers would probably drive him to swallow his pride to provide a “square deal” for them in time for destitute and heroic workers to receive the meaningful help they need.       

Domestic Policy, Government, Immigration

The Swamp Wins Again

In this site’s mission statement, I said that as much as Theodore Roosevelt was a model, there would be times we would disagree with his likely approach to an issue.  The Supreme Court’s recent opinion on the DACA immigration program highlights one of those differences – the wisdom of unchecked presidential power. 

The Court’s opinion errs not just because it continues a program that flouts the basic rules of immigration law.  The so-called Dreamers would have been granted permanent residency eventually. However, it should have occurred through the legislative process as part of a comprehensive immigration reform that created real and enforceable limits on future immigration.  Instead, the Court used arcane administrative obstacles to allow the Obama Administration to evade the Congress and the people to achieve its political goals. In doing so, the Court has undermined the constitutional separation of powers and the democratic process.

The breadth and depth of the power granted by the Court to administrative agencies (and thus the presidency itself) can only be understood by delving into the details. The court admits that the DACA program (and the corresponding rule protecting the parents of DACA children) were affirmative rules subject to the Administrative Procedure Act. This law ordinarily would require such rules to be issued through a notice and public comment process and adopted only after “reasoned decisionmaking” (the Court’s language). They then could be appealed for judicial review by interested groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for immigration restrictions. Instead, the program was initiated by a three-page “memorandum” not posted for prior comment and justified on conclusory grounds that such immigrants “lacked the intent to violate the law”, are “productive contributors” and “know only this country as home”. No other justification or evidence was cited to support the memorandum. In addition, by acting through such a memorandum, the administration made it more difficult to challenge the program in the courts.

Thankfully, several states did challenge it and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a preliminary ruling holding it to be an illegal rule making.  After President Trump took office, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an opinion to the Department of Homeland Security holding it to be illegal. Based on these opinions, the acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security decided to rescind the program. That should have been the end of the matter. Instead, a new set of appeals were filed and the Supreme Court struck down the rescission and sent it back to the agency so it can consider at least 8 different objections by supporters of the rule. In short, the court ruled that an agency rule having a multi-billion dollar economic impact and granting new rights to over 20 million people could be adopted without public comment or congressional input on conclusory grounds, but could only be repealed by engaging in a detailed factual and legal analysis.

Justice Thomas’s dissent accurately describes the danger to our constitutional democracy, stating that an agency is  now “not only permitted, but required, to continue administering unlawful programs that it inherited from a previous administration”.  It grants agencies and the beneficiaries of their largesse more rights than the people as a whole. No wonder many refer to Washington as a swamp. Policies adopted through the democratic process go in, but become so mired in governmental and special interest muck that they never come out.

To his credit, President Trump has issued an executive order prohibiting this kind of rogue administrative action.  At the same time, he encourages the same culture of presidential power by constantly acting through executive orders rather than by legislation.  He has never seriously pursued a comprehensive administrative law reform in the Congress.  Without this, a succeeding administration can undo his restraints by its own executive order. As we approach the 2020 election, American nationalists who believe in the unique value of our constitutional democracy should insist that candidates, including Trump, commit to reform that drains the administrative swamp once and for all and opens up policy making to the American people.