Wonkbook: The Supreme Court backs Clean Air

April 30

Welcome to Wonkbook, Wonkblog’s morning policy news primer by Puneet Kollipara. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. To read more by the Wonkblog team, click here.


(AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

The Obama administration’s environmental agenda scored a major victory on Tuesday. In a 6-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) after a lower court had previously struck it down. But there's a lot more at stake, environmentally and politically, than there appears on the surface.

The rule has big public-health implications and it seeks to solve a complex environmental challenge. Power plants that burn fossil fuels, namely coal, emit not only the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, but a slew of other pollutants. Two of them, sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), react in the atmosphere with other substances to form lung- and heart-damaging smog and particulate matter (PM) — what most of us know as soot. Moreover, this type of pollution travels: emissions of these pollutants from the Midwest and South actually blow downwind to Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states. CSAPR requires power plants in 28 states to reduce their emissions to help stem this problem.

Republicans and their allies in the energy industry have attacked virtually every EPA regulation of the energy sector as costly to the economy, and this rule was no exception (the EPA insists that the rule's benefits in health problems reduced far outweigh the cost). Industry litigants scored a win in a lower court that struck down the rule over procedural errors by the EPA.

Now that the Supreme Court has sided with the Obama administration, though, the rule is back from the dead. This ruling won’t change the GOP- and industry-led attacks. It arguably could embolden Republicans with their recent "war on coal" rallying cry, putting red-state Democrats on the defensive this election season. Although the ruling won't define the midterms, it may play into a broader narrative about the administration's policies and how they affect the economy.

For now, environmental groups are breathing (pun fully intended) a big sigh of relief. Even though the president has left them something to be desired on climate change policy (namely his delays of the Keystone XL pipeline decision), they have viewed CSAPR as a big priority. The regulation, though aimed at public health, may have the effect of helping shift the electricity supply to cleaner, less carbon-intensive fuels anyway. Although coal has already been on the decline domestically for a number of reasons (namely the shale-gas boom), this rule could help along that transition. And as some observers have suggested, the ruling seems to indicate that the court is giving the EPA more leeway in how it uses Clean Air Act.

That leeway would help the EPA tackle an even bigger challenge: its plan to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, new and existing alike. — Puneet Kollipara

Wonkbook’s Number of the Day: 148 million. That's the number of Americans who live in areas with elevated smog or soot pollution, a new report says.

Wonkbook’s Chart of the Day: Some statistics on sexual assault of undergraduate women.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) EPA's big win in court; (2) where's the Obamacare public opinion recovery?; (3) reinforcements coming to the Fed soon; (4) Supreme Court does tech; and (5) the raging policy debate over sexual assaults and college.

1. Top story: EPA notches a big win in court; here's what it means

Supreme Court upholds EPA rule limiting cross-state pollution. "The agency for years, under two administrations, has struggled to carry out a directive under the federal Clean Air Act to protect downwind states from pollution generated in other states, mostly from coal-fired power plants. The EPA’s rules from 2011 were challenged by a coalition of upwind states and industry, which prevailed in lower courts. But the Supreme Court justices ruled 6 to 2 that the latest effort could be implemented, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing for the majority that the agency must have leeway to confront the 'complex challenge' of interstate pollution." Robert Barnes and Darryl Fears in The Washington Post.

Primary source: The Supreme Court's ruling.

Like a good neighbor, the EPA is there? "At issue was whether the EPA could use what are known as good-neighbor rules to regulate emissions that cross state borders. In short, the Supreme Court ruled that a power plant in Ohio whose emissions blow east into New York is liable for the damage caused there....In geographic terms, this is a win for the Northeast and a blow to Midwestern and Appalachian states. But it’s extra bad news for utilities with big coal portfolios such as American Electric Power (AEP), Duke Energy (DUK), Southern (SO), and Xcel (XEL)....These utilities must weigh the high costs of cleaning up their coal operations against simply shutting them down."  Matthew Philips in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Almost half of Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution. "Nearly 148 million people live in areas where smog and soot particles make it unhealthy to breathe the air, according to the ALA's annual study on US air quality....The report, which is based on data collected between 2010 and 2012, found smog, or ozone, had worsened in 22 of the 25 biggest US metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, Houston, Washington-Baltimore, New York City and Chicago — and said there was a high risk of more high-ozone days because of climate change." Suzanne Goldenberg in The Guardian.

EPA is winning the 'war on coal.' "Tuesday’s 6-2 Supreme Court decision upholding a complex air pollution rule is the latest victory for an anti-pollution strategy that is really still in its early stages. The next move may be even bigger: In June, the EPA is due to release its most ambitious attempt yet to throttle greenhouse gas pollution from the nation’s thousands of power plants.... It remains to be seen how this will all play out politically, especially if Republicans take the Senate in November. But Tuesday’s decision was yet another body blow for the coal industry, and some legal experts called it a further sign that the EPA can have confidence in its mastery of the Clean Air Act." Erica Martinson and Alex Guillen in Politico.

How the decision boosts the EPA's pending carbon emissions rules. "Lawyers said the 6-2 Supreme Court decision to side with the EPA was a timely boost for the agency as it moves to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from the country's power plants using a different section of the Clean Air Act....Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, added that the high court gave 'considerable deference' to the agency's standard-setting expertise, which will boost the agency as it prepares to issue what might be its most far-reaching regulations to date." Valerie Volcovici in Reuters.

Did EPA delay a climate rule to help vulnerable Dems? "Newly released documents are fueling GOP questions about whether EPA put politics ahead of policy by publishing a controversial climate rule so late that it will allow red-state Senate Democrats to dodge a difficult vote. The records also contradict the congressional testimony of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who told senators early this year that her agency had submitted the rule to the Federal Register 'as soon as that proposal was released.'...The delay means that the soonest congressional Republicans can force a vote on repealing the rule is January 2015 — months after the vote would pose a tricky political dilemma for some Democrats." Erica Martinson in Politico.

The good-neighbor rule won't go back into place right away. "The EPA, three years ago, required coal-fired power plants in more than two dozen states in the Midwest and East to cut the pollution that they send to communities in other states. But a federal court swiftly blocked the rule and later said the EPA had erred in drafting it. Today, the Supreme Court sided with the EPA to the delight of Gina McCarthy who heads the agency....But McCarthy acknowledges that the rule will not immediately be reinstated. The Supreme Court sent it back to the lower court to hammer out the details." Elizabeth Shogren in NPR.

About those drafting errors... "The companies said the EPA improperly focused on the cost of emission reductions, rather than basing its rule solely on the amount of pollutants created in each state. States also complained that the agency imposed cleanup plans without first affording them a chance to develop one. In its decision today, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court decision and sided with the EPA on both counts." Greg Stohr and Mark Drajem in Bloomberg.

Other energy/environmental reads:

Senate Democrats weighing Keystone XL vote. Kathleen Hunter in Bloomberg.

Solar energy capacity up 418 pct. from 2010 to 2014. CleanTechnica.

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Court got it right. "it isn’t technologically possible to determine exactly how much pollution each state contributes to any other state. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority, quoting the New Testament: 'The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.' Given this reality, and the broad language of the Clean Air Act, the court was right to defer to the agency’s expertise to manage a hugely complex national problem, and to protect human health and the environment at the lowest cost." Editorial Board.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: The EPA unchained. "The next time someone says the John Roberts Supreme Court consistently blocks Obama Administration policy, be sure to recall the ObamaCare case. But right behind that you can mention Tuesday's 6-2 ruling that anoints the Environmental Protection Agency's habit of rewriting the Clean Air Act and even offers a convenient legal rationale that the EPA hadn't offered." Editorial Board.

Top opinion

E. KLEIN: The GOP replacement for Obamacare is Fauxbamacare. "Scott Brown, who's now running for Senate in New Hampshire, has found the perfect position on Obamacare. He's for it. He's just not for calling it Obamacare. In an interview with WMUR, he called Obamacare a 'disaster.' Then he was asked what he's for  — and he went on to describe Obamacare....Oh, he also promises his plan won't raise taxes, cut spending on Medicare, or make people drive very far to go to the hospital. So his plan will have more generous insurance options and no way to pay for them. In other words, his plan will be like Obamacare, but even better! Call it Fauxbamacare." Ezra Klein in Vox.

SALAM: The high cost of the housing and minimum wage debate. "The liberal cities that done the most to restrict housing development have been at the forefront of the movement for living wage ordinances and local minimum wage laws designed to better the lives of low-wage workers. One of the chief arguments in favor of minimum wage hikes is that full-time low-wage workers scarcely earn enough to afford rent in much of the United States. This line of argument is somewhat misleading....But if we accept that the lack of housing that is affordable for low-income households is a problem, as I do...it’s not obvious that a higher wage floor is the first step we ought to take." Reihan Salam in National Review.

COWEN AND RUGY: Why is Piketty such a huge deal in America? "The American response to Thomas Piketty’s new book on inequality has been rapturous, with reviews comparing the author, a French economist, to Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx. Oddly, the French’s response to their native son’s book has been considerably more aloof. While French journalists and pundits enjoyed the book, 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century,' there was no Beatlemania and, unlike Esquire magazine, no one declared it 'the most important book of the century.'" Tyler Cowen and Veronique de Rugy in The New York Times.

COHN: A weak answer from conservatives on inequality. "Some conservatives, to their credit, take seriously the problems of an unequal society and what it means for those who aren't among the economic elite. But those conservatives are the exceptions. Most just don’t think inequality is that big a deal, if they even care about it in the first place. (A few even say so clearly.) I suspect many of these conservatives are talking about crony capitalism again for the same reason they were doing it a year ago — because saying nothing would look bad, and this weak answer is the best they’ve got." Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic.

RAUL: Don't throw out the 'Big Data' baby with the bathwater. "Two years ago, in March 2012, the Obama administration vowed to unleash the power of Big Data, rolling out a 'Big Data Research and Development Initiative' with great fanfare and bold, sweeping claims about the technology’s potential for good....In 2014, however, the White House’s enthusiasm for Big Data has waned, putting those promised benefits at risk....Privacy concerns appear to be at the root of this exercise." Alan Charles Raul in Politico Magazine.

Magic interlude: Amazing illusions on talent show.

2. Survey says: The public still doesn't like Obamacare

So much for that White House victory lap? "Democrats have been claiming a turning point in the battle over Obamacare for the better part of the last month. First came the news that 8 million people had signed up — exceeding the law's goals — and then came the Congressional Budget Office report that its cost estimates are decreasing. President Obama even took something of a victory lap, declaring the debate over his signature health-care law over. When it comes to the American people, though, there has been basically zero rallying effect. And in fact, they still expect Obamacare to do significantly more harm than good — in about the same proportions as before." Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Support for ACA repeal keeps dropping... "By a substantial margin, Americans disagree with the Republican argument that President Obama’s healthcare law should be repealed and replaced, but several weeks of relatively good news about the law have done little to change entrenched, partisan views of it. Those are the conclusions of two newly released public opinion surveys....They suggest that the potency of GOP arguments against the law have waned, but that it continues to be a risk for Democrats in key congressional races, particularly in the South." David Lauter in the Los Angeles Times.

...but opinion of law still negative, despite enrollment boost. "Despite millions of Americans getting covered by Obamacare — which Democrats had long said would improve the health law's favorability ratings — public opinion remains negative. Some 48 percent hold an unfavorable view of the Affordable Care Act, compared with 38 percent favorable — numbers that are virtually unchanged from previous months — according to the latest Kaiser Health Tracking Poll, released Tuesday. In the time between the March and April polls, enrollment exceeded the administration's own expectations and was largely considered a successful start for the health law's exchanges." Clara Ritger in National Journal.

Southerners hate Obamacare more than ever. That's bad news for Democrats. "Sure enough, opinions of the law have improved since late last year among just about every regional and demographic group you can think of. Except one: Southerners. Buried on Page 43 of the poll results is the interesting fact that Southerners in battleground states are even more eager to repeal Obamacare than they were last December—this despite the fact that the law appeared to recover ably from the debacle of its rollout and then exceed its enrollment target....What accounts for the shift toward repeal, Seifert said, are attitudes in Southern districts represented by Democrats." Joshua Green in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Republicans almost have to keep beating the Obamacare drum. Here's why. "They've started to hedge their language a little bit more, and they aren't beating the repeal drum as much as they used to, but get them in front of the home crowd — say, a GOP primary debate in Georgia or North Carolina — and it's 2010 all over again. Three findings from a poll released Tuesday by the Washington Post and ABC News help explain why: Republican voters still believe that the law's rollout was completely botched, they are going to vote for Republican candidates and they say they are definitely going to vote." Dylan Scott in Talking Points Memo.

Here are the reasons that some uninsureds are sitting out of Obamacare. "This newest monthly Kaiser Health Tracking poll, which has provided some of the most reliable data on the public's opinion interaction with the Affordable Care Act over the past four years, finds that nearly 4 in 10 uninsured adults cited affordability as their main reason for skipping health insurance coverage. Twenty-two percent cited employment reasons (they were unemployed or couldn't get coverage through their job), while another 11 percent said they missed the deadline and 9 percent said they just didn't want insurance." Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

Obama's new HHS pick has some fans in the GOP. "The proxy war over Obamacare that was expected to dominate the Senate in May is looking more and more like a dud....Initially, Republicans seemed poised to use the confirmation process to spur further attacks on Obamacare. But instead, more than a half-dozen GOP senators said in interviews that they are impressed with Burwell’s credentials. In the end, the only thing standing between Burwell and a new seat in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet might be two tough grillings in front of the cameras." Jennifer Haberkorn and Burgess Everett in Politico.

Other health care reads:

Health law adviser says insurers will morph into providers. Michelle Andrews in NPR.

Obamacare enrollees emboldened to leave jobs, start businesses. Stephanie O'Neill in NPR.

Court hears arguments on Mississippi abortion law. Kevin McGill in the Associated Press.

Republicans and some Democrats find agreement on an ACA tweak. Erica Werner in the Associated Press.

This I learned today interlude: How the CDC learned that pet lizards were behind a salmonella outbreak.

3. Don't fret, Fed — reinforcements are on the way soon

Senate aiming to vote on Fed nominees before Memorial Day. "Senate Democratic leaders are actively working to bring a floor vote on President Obama's nominees to the Federal Reserve before Memorial Day, according to a senior aide. The three nominees — famed economist Stanley Fischer, former Treasury official Lael Brainard, and sitting Fed Gov. Jerome Powell — cleared a key hurdle Tuesday morning when they were unanimously approved in a voice vote by the Senate banking committee. The timing of a confirmation vote is particularly delicate because the Fed will be down to just three sitting members on its powerful board of governors by the end of next month." Lori Montgomery and Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

Why the Fed will miss the departing Jeremy Stein. "The FOMC meeting this week is not likely to see any policy fireworks, but it will mark the departure of Governor Jeremy Stein, who returns to academic life at Harvard at the end of May. He has only been on the Board for two years, but he has made an intellectual mark in a critical area where leading members of the FOMC have been largely silent — how to set monetary policy when the need to maintain financial stability is conflicting with the near term outlook for inflation and employment." Gavyn Davies in The Financial Times.

Key this week at the Fed: the job market. "Officials at the Federal Reserve will be meeting today and tomorrow. And one thing that will determine their actions is the employment situation in the country. Now, there's some disagreement among economists — both inside and outside the Fed — over how close the job market is to regaining its pre-recession strength." NPR.

Video: What to expect from the Fed. The Wall Street Journal.

We aren't too worried about economic data of late. "If people in your office seem to be tingling with excitement this week, it is probably because of all the big economic news on the way. The two biggest regular United States economic reports are scheduled to come out....Federal Reserve policy makers are meeting Tuesday and Wednesday for one of their regular sessions to set the nation’s monetary policy. And a variety of other important data releases are coming, including personal income and spending, manufacturing and home prices. What, no tingling? You’re not alone. Because as important as all that stuff is, it is substantially less important, and less interesting, than it has been any time in the last seven years." Neil Irwin in The New York Times.

Here are some economic indicators anyway:

U.S. economic growth probably slowed by harsh weather. Jeanna Smialek in Bloomberg.

How smaller government is hitting payrolls in parts of the U.S. Jeffrey Sparshott in The Wall Street Journal.

Consumer confidence dips but remains near six-year high. Rodrigo Campos and Ryan Vlastelica in Reuters.

Confidence rebounded to pre-crisis levels in first quarter. Susan Fenton in Reuters.

Home ownership rate falls to lowest level since mid-1990s. Conor Dougherty in The Wall Street Journal.

Home prices in major U.S. cities flat in February. Andrew Khouri in the Los Angeles Times.

Other economic/financial reads:

Senate Democrats postpone consideration of housing reform bill. Dina ElBoghdady and Lori Montgomery in The Washington Post.

Minimum wage battle shifting to local level. Eric Morath in The Wall Street Journal.

Things aren't looking so good for negotiations over jobless benefits bill. Steven Dennis in Roll Call.

Gap between rich and poor worse in China than in U.S. Lorraine Woellert and Sharon Chen in Bloomberg.

Musical performance interlude: Check out this little kid's rendition of "Roar" by Katy Perry.

4. Supreme Court justices are getting a crash course in technology

Supreme Court seeks balance between cellphone searches, right to privacy. "The Supreme Court struggled Tuesday to find the proper balance between law enforcement’s power to search cellphones seized during an arrest and an individual’s right not to reveal the vast amount of information that can be stored there. There did not seem to be majority support for the government’s position that there is no need for a warrant before police can examine the device. Nor did there seem to be enough votes for the other side’s position: that warrants are almost always required." Robert Barnes in The Washington Post.

Two other rulings may curb lawsuits over patents. "In a pair of unanimous decisions, the Supreme Court on Tuesday made it easier for the winning side in patent cases to recover its legal fees from the loser. The decisions were welcomed by some technology companies, which said the rulings would help address what they say are abusive and coercive lawsuits brought by 'patent trolls,' or companies that buy patents not to use them but to collect royalties and damages." Adam Liptak in The New York Times.

Ah, cut the justices some slack — they are trying. "The indefatigable Supreme Court justices have suffered some teasing recently for presiding over cases where it appears they might not be exactly up to speed on how some modern technology works. But during two hours of oral arguments Tuesday for a pair of cases dealing with whether police should be able to warrantlessly search cell phones during an arrest, some justices appeared eager to show off their tech-savvy bona fides — or good-naturedly mock their own ignorance." Dustin Volz in National Journal.

Quotable headline: "Supreme Court to decide if law forbidding destruction of financial records applies to fish." Robert Barnes in The Washington Post.

Other tech reads:

How the NSA undermined one of Obama's top priorities: cybersecurity. Brendan Sasso in National Journal.

Animals interlude: A compilation of funny cats.

5. What you need to know about the policy debate over sexual assault on campuses

Advocates have a bone to pick with the White House's sexual assault plan. "Advocates for the higher education community sound less enthused about the idea of requiring mass surveys. Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, was mostly positive about the task force's report, but he singled out the mandatory climate survey as something he's not in favor of. Instead, Kruger suggested, the higher education community itself should seek advice on the best way to gauge the prevalence of sexual assault on campuses." Tyler Kingkade in The Huffington Post.

Why has the issue gained such traction recently? "While sexual violence is an age-old problem, the campaign responds to growing outrage at incidents reported in recent years at some of the nation’s most prestigious schools, such as Amherst College in Massachusetts and Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. The president of Dartmouth College this month pledged a campaign to end 'extreme behavior,' including sex assaults and dangerous drinking, at the college campus in New Hampshire." Nick Anderson and Katie Zezima in The Washington Post.

Chart: Sexual assault of undergraduate women. The Washington Post.

Some progress made, but more to be made. "The Department of Education and the Justice Department have opened investigations. In April of 2011, the Department of Education sent new guidance to schools, new rules that it expected schools to follow when it investigated a sexual assault....Then another key moment came last year when Congress passed a bill, signed into law, that made some of these changes permanent. The Campus SaVE Act required that victims be told all their rights, where to go for counseling. It set up procedures to protect the rights of both the accused and the accuser." Joe Shapiro in NPR.

Congress has champions on the issue. "The White House came out today with beneficial, if modest, recommendations for strengthening the laws that are supposed to protect students. And Congress may actually enact them, as Sens. Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand shift some of their focus on sexual assault in the military to sexual assault on campus." Emily Bazelon in Slate.

One university wasn't complying with existing rules. "Talk about timing: The White House has unveiled plans to crack down on college sexual assault just days after Tufts University formally refused to comply with the federal regulations that are already in place." Claire Suddath in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Other education reads:

Enrollment in student debt-forgiveness program soars in 2014. Josh Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal.

Coffee interlude: This is how your Wonkbooker once would have reacted from drinking coffee (but now he needs it to function).

Wonkblog roundup

What Donald Sterling could make if he’s forced to sell the Clippers. Matt O'Brien.

Yes, you can buy your way into a Congressional seat. Christopher Ingraham.

Senate aiming to vote on Fed nominees before Memorial Day. Lori Montgomery and Ylan Q. Mui.

Why Pfizer wants to effectively renounce its U.S. citizenship. Jia Lynn Yang.

Family dynasties: How power begets power in Congress. Christopher Ingraham.

Sports oligopolies and the economics of getting rid of Donald Sterling. Olugbenga Ajilore.

Federal Reserve nominees clear key hurdle. Ylan Q. Mui.

What if we mapped cities by how hard it is to get to work? Emily Badger.

Why the sanctions against Russia probably won’t work. Steven Mufson.

Why the uninsured are sitting out Obamacare. Jason Millman.

Et Cetera

White House opens door to tolls on interstate highways, removing long-standing prohibition. Ashley Halsey III in The Washington Post.

Wisconsin voter ID law barred as obstacle to minorities. Andrew Harris in Bloomberg.

Report on deportations shows strict enforcement at U.S. border. Laura Meckler in The Wall Street Journal.

Boehner quells GOP fears on immigration reform. Julia Edwards in Reuters.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail us.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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