Have you ever gotten the sense that Democratic concerns about the threat to American democracy aren’t entirely sincere?
Perhaps it’s the efforts of party strategists to boost conspiracy-curious, MAGA-flavored Republican candidates in the primaries only so they can mourn the GOP’s authoritarianism. Maybe it’s Democrats’ claim that the Supreme Court is making “a mockery of democracy” by remanding divisive social issues to the various legislatures, to which Democrats have responded by doing exactly what the Court recommended in seeking to codify those rights in legislation. Or it could be that the party responds to legislative setbacks by threatening to usurp the powers it isn’t specifically granted by Congress. At least, that’s how the president reportedly plans to respond to congressional lethargy on one of the many exigencies of our time: the “climate emergency.”
For months, progressive activists have lobbied the Biden administration to declare a “climate emergency” and to impose restrictions on private enterprise commensurate with the crisis. The president is reportedly listening to these enthusiasts and is prepared to do just that. It was not, however, any event or statistic that allegedly convinced Joe Biden to act. The failure of the people’s elected representatives in Congress to empower the executive branch has apparently convinced him to seize and exercise new authority.
The president’s forthcoming power grab was reportedly inspired by the breakdown of negotiations over new federal spending initiatives designed to support green technologies while making it more expensive to produce power through conventional means. Owing to the worsening economic climate, Sen. Joe Manchin refused to support this measure. This act of prudence led prominent Democratic influencers to label him the “man who single-handedly doomed humanity,” consigning us all to a future dominated by “barren croplands, flooded homes, and incinerated communities.”
It is precisely Congress’s explicit refusal to authorize the executive branch to execute new climate change regulations that has convinced Democrats the president must exercise those undelegated powers. “This also unchains the president from waiting for Congress to act,” said Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley of the still very fettered president. “Free at last,” Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse declared. “With legislative climate options now closed, it’s now time for executive Beast Mode.” And yet, the value proposition associated with declaring a “climate emergency” seems to be primarily in the declaration itself. What the president is supposed to do remains vague.
The Washington Post noted that activists believe the usurpation they envision “would allow the president to halt crude oil exports, limit oil and gas drilling in federal waters, and direct agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency to boost renewable energy sources.” The Biden administration has thus far balked at restricting oil exports because America’s European allies depend on U.S. energy exports to offset Russian supplies. The White House already produced a plan to limit federal leases offshore for the next five years and has canceled three oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Alaskan coast even in the absence of emergency powers. Reorienting FEMA away from disaster response and toward social engineering would expand the agency’s remit, sap it of authority, and commit it to tasks it cannot perform while sacrificing its core mission.
Moreover, as the Supreme Court recently ruled in West Virginia v. EPA, the executive branch has been assuming authority that “Congress had conspicuously declined to enact itself” for years. That decision put an end to that agency’s apparent presumption that “Congress implicitly tasked it, and it alone, with balancing the many vital considerations of national policy implicated in the basic regulation of how Americans get their energy” when there’s “little reason to think Congress did so.” These constitutional impediments do not dissolve simply because Democrats believe the Constitution is unequal to the imperatives of the moment.
But the activists are angry. They demand action, regardless of whether that action is effective or backed by the imprimatur of America’s democratic institutions. And the president needs those activists. In their absence at the polls in November, the defeat Democrats expect to endure could turn into a rout. The mechanisms of self-government have become an obstacle to realizing Democratic goals, so those mechanisms must be stilled. It’s enough to make you wonder if left-wing laments about “the death of American democracy” are genuine.