In the days since U.S. EPA proposed landmark carbon emissions limits for power plants, comparisons to President Obama's health care reform law have abounded on the left, the right and in the media -- but the strongest parallel of all may be political.
States are only beginning to weigh how and whether to craft specific plans to meet EPA's greenhouse-gas-cutting targets, using flexible compliance tools often likened to the Affordable Care Act's (ACA), and legal challenges to the proposal are in similarly early stages. But the partisan battle to define the complex EPA proposal is already underway, and Democrats are gearing up to apply lessons learned from the public stumbles of Obamacare.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), an EPA champion, advised the Obama administration to "watch out for" what he called the "complexity trap" that has bedeviled both the president's health care and emissions-cutting plans.
Democrats "could have done the public option" on health care, allowing all Americans to participate in a government-managed insurance plan, but instead relied on GOP-backed ideas in crafting Obamacare, Whitehouse said in a recent interview.
"Instead of appreciating it, Republicans attacked it for being complicated," he added of the ACA.
The same outcome befell the cap-and-trade emissions-cutting bill Democrats pushed for in 2009 and 2010, Whitehouse posited. Again Democrats "did it the Republican way" by embracing a GOP policy framework as opposed to a simpler carbon fee, the senator said, and "instead of saying thank you," the opposing party aligned with industry to defeat the legislation.
Other Democrats, like Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon, offered the president's team the simpler advice of paying closer attention to the management of EPA's website as it steers the complicated power plant proposal through the arcane stages of the regulatory process. The first step comes today, when the rule is officially published in the Federal Register (E&ENews PM, June 17).
But despite the circumstantial resemblance between Obamacare and EPA's emissions rule, the politics of the two issues may well prove dramatically different due to their opposite structures. The Department of Health and Human Services had to implement the ACA largely from the ground up, dangling subsidies for expanded Medicaid before states that could reject them, while EPA is maneuvering its power plant proposal through the existing and more resistance-hardened pathways of the Clean Air Act.
Both the health care law and the power plant rule "are politically unpopular in purple states," former George W. Bush administration adviser Ted Gayer, now director of the Brookings Institution's economic studies program, said in an interview. But "maybe, with the exception of places like Kentucky, ACA would be more political baggage for a moderate Democrat than the emissions goals."
Take Texas, for instance, where Gov. Rick Perry (R) spurned Obamacare's potential Medicaid expansion in a move that left an estimated 1 million-plus low-income Texans off the rolls. Perry joined eight GOP colleagues this week in slamming the EPA emissions rule as improper federal intrusion into state governance, but his state's 2010 attempt to resist a greenhouse gas permitting mandate ended in a federal victory and a system for reining in the state's emitters (Greenwire, Feb. 5).
"There is nothing novel about EPA issuing pollution reduction targets and expecting states to submit plans on how to reach them," the Natural Resources Defense Council's government affairs director, David Goldston, said via email. "This is a standard feature of the Clean Air Act and has been used to reduce smog, soot and other pollutants for years."
Making a "principled conservative critique" of the ACA as excessive government bureaucracy is "much easier" than offering a similar argument against EPA's proposed rule, Gayer said, due to the health care law's use of the Medicaid subsidy as well as other taxes and incentives.
"If a state decides they're not going to play along with this power plant rule, it's a losing legal fight," he added, "but they might just be stalling for time" in the hopes that the rule could be slowed until a Republican president rolls back its goals in 2017.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who played a major role in crafting the ACA as well as overseeing EPA's pollution-reduction plans in recent years, echoed Goldston and Gayer in seeing Obamacare as not much of an omen for the emissions rule.
EPA could ostensibly step in with its own plan to cut power plant emissions for states that refuse to write their own, creating a political target akin to the healthcare.gov insurance exchange, but "I can't imagine any serious business interest in a state would want the federal government" to intercede in that way, Waxman said in an interview.
Yet the apparent superficiality of the alignment between the health care law and the power plant rule is no impediment to the GOP's intent to stop both efforts.
Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), a top lieutenant on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, vowed in an interview that EPA's power plant limits "definitely will" become a political albatross akin to Obamacare in future election cycles. Yet he also acknowledged that the timing for final implementation of the emissions rule might make its political power stronger in the 2016 campaign season, when "a lot of this stuff will take effect."
Another wild card in attempts to make EPA's rule into "Obamacare 2.0," as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) labeled it in a recent speech, is the disparate personalities of the two agency chiefs implementing the respective policy agendas. Former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius drew mixed reviews and public parodies for her defense of healthcare.gov, but EPA chief Gina McCarthy carries the chits of a more freewheeling persona and experience under a Republican governor into her public campaign for the power plant limits.
Whitfield acknowledged that McCarthy "is more of a bureaucrat" than the politics-schooled Sebelius, a former governor of Kansas. But he argued that the EPA administrator is "taking orders from the White House" in the same manner as the former HHS chief.
Still, "she's gotten pretty good marks so far," Jim Manley, a veteran aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who now serves as senior director at Quinn Gillespie & Associates, said in a recent interview.
Manley also pointed McCarthy and Democrats to another recent example of an administration leader beset by public-relations difficulties: now-resigned Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who like Sebelius found himself at odds to explain internal failings in his department.
"As the situation with Shinseki showed, large bureaucracies are sometimes difficult to manage," Manley said. "You need a lot of follow-through to make sure it's being properly executed."