Wonkbook: Why Obama’s new climate rule matters

June 2

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)

Wonkbook’s Number of the Day: 30 percent. That's the amount by which the EPA's new proposed greenhouse-gas rule for power plants would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 2030, relative to 2005.

Wonkbook’s Chart of the Day: The paradox of this recovery, in two charts.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) Why the EPA rule matters; (2) what a way to start out as the new VA chief; (3) GOP's growing Obamacare problem; (4) the final word on the Piketty-FT spat; and (5) the bajillionth round of the GOP civil war.

1. Top story: Why the EPA greenhouse-gas rule matters, for climate change and beyond

EPA to propose cutting coal plants' CO2 emissions 30% by 2030. "The Environmental Protection Agency will propose a regulation Monday that would cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal plants by up to 30 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels, according to individuals who have been briefed on the plan. Under the draft rule, the EPA would analyze four options that states and utilities would have to meet the new standard....The rule represents one of the most significant steps the federal government has ever taken to curb the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, which are linked to climate change, and the draft is sure to spark a major political and legal battle." Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson in The Washington Post.

Explainers:

7 things to know about the coming EPA rule. Zack Colman in the Washington Examiner.

6 charts that show the broader context behind the EPA rule. Brad Plumer in Vox.

Long read: One key question about the rule: Will it matter? Sally Deneen in National Geographic.

Yes it will matter, and it can succeed. "The United States government will begin the single most important step it’s ever taken to fight climate change....Some fear the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations will be catastrophic, a heavy-handed big-government overreach that will drive up the price of energy. Yet some energy policy experts say those misgivings are unfounded. Indeed, there’s good reason to think the regulations can succeed. Over the last decade, as federal climate efforts stagnated, some states pursued ambitious strategies of their own. They quietly put prices on greenhouse gases, harnessing market forces to cut carbon pollution." Brandon Keim in Wired.

It's not a silver bullet. "It won’t be enough unless the rest of the world follows....While making electricity creates 40 percent of the greenhouse gases in the U.S., cutting it as Obama proposes will not come close to meeting the global reduction scientists say is necessary to reverse warming. For one thing, the amount of the U.S. cuts would be replaced more than three times over by projected increases in China alone." Mark Drajem and Jim Efstathiou Jr.  in Bloomberg.

But the CO2 rules also are raising hopes for a Paris climate deal. "In private, some officials are showing signs of interest in a deal with the US that could make the Paris talks more successful than Copenhagen....After decades of doing little to thwart a steady rise in global carbon emissions, Paris could be the moment when countries take more concrete action. Experts caution that huge differences still remain between the US and China and Monday’s US power plant limits may not be as ambitious as some expect....But the fact that this is happening at all is a shift that should not be underestimated." Pilita Clark in The Financial Times.

That's why the U.N. climate chief likes the rule. "Christiana Figueres, the UN's top climate change official, said she expects the new power plant rules could spur other big emitters — such as China and India — to begin taking action on climate change and move forward on reaching a deal by the 2015 deadline....Figueres said in a statement on Sunday she believed the rules would send 'a good signal to nations everywhere' that America is serious about dealing with the threat of climate change." Suzanne Goldenberg in The Guardian.

The rule is not just about climate. It's also about health. "President Obama offered a small detail Saturday about the big EPA draft regulation...'In just the first year that these standards go into effect, up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks will be avoided — and those numbers will go up from there,' Obama said in his weekly address. But those immediate health benefits that regulators are forecasting have nothing to do with lowering carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. Instead, Obama's talking about other kinds of smokestack pollution — smog-forming emissions and soot — that hitch a ride with carbon." Ben Geman in National Journal.

Video: President Obama's weekly address.

The rule is also about the politics of the moment. "The new pollution rule...will be a cornerstone of President Barack Obama's environmental legacy and arguably the most significant U.S. environmental regulation in decades. But it's not one the White House wanted....At the crux of the problem is Obama's use of a 1970 law that was not intended to regulate the gases blamed for global warming. Obama was forced to rely on the Clean Air Act after he tried and failed to get Congress to pass a new law during his first term. When the Republicans took over the House, the goal became impossible." Dina Cappiello in the Associated Press.

Happy hurricane season! "Anticipating more storms like Hurricane Sandy, President Barack Obama urged emergency workers and residents in coastal areas to brace themselves for the start of the hurricane season. The official beginning of the hurricane season two days from now coincides with an administration focus on climate change, which Obama is making a central issue during his final years in office. 'The changes we’re seeing in our climate mean that, unfortunately, storms like Sandy could end up being more common and more devastating,' Obama said." Angela Greiling Keane in Bloomberg.

Is Obama right? Sort of. It's unclear whether we'll see more hurricanes, but the ones we do see are likely to be stronger than in the past. Skeptical Science.

Other energy/environmental reads:

U.S. LNG exports could help curb emissions. Ed Crooks in The Financial Times.

The real reason that Keystone XL might fail. Matthew Philips and Brad Wieners in Bloomberg Businessweek.

YGLESIAS: The most important day of Obama's second term. "The stakes here are high. Adopt a rule that's too lenient, and the president will miss a unique opportunity....Adopt a rule that's too strict and he'll risk a congressional backlash that could ultimately undermine the EPA's ability to do anything....Yet energy issues are highly regionalized, and the risk of an anti-Obama backlash from Democrats representing coal-dependent areas is real. Striking the right balance will be tough....But either way, make no mistake this — not the Keystone XL pipeline or congressional Benghazi hearings or clearly doomed transportation plans — is the political story to watch of our time." Matthew Yglesias in Vox.

PONNURU: Climate and the collective action problem. "What we’d need to measure to do a cost-benefit analysis of unilateral American carbon restrictions are its costs compared to the expected benefits of the carbon reductions it would achieve, counting both U.S. reductions and foreign countries’ reductions induced by our example. But looking at it from the perspective of India or China, for example, I’m not sure what the upside of following the American example is supposed to be. Now if they adopt their own regulations, they get the added benefit of...our continuing down a course on which we have already started?" Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review.

ZELLER: How the rule can boost the economy. "When the federal government moves to clear the air, fossil-fuel interests hyperventilate. That's not surprising on its face. Businesses are programmed to jealously guard the bottom line, and they are right to do so. But as the debate heats up over the EPA's new greenhouse gas rules — and there will be substantial debate — it's worth keeping the end-times wailing of the fossil-fuel lobby in perspective." Tom Zeller Jr. in Bloomberg View.

McARDLE: Obama is blowing smoke. "I’m just skeptical that this is the year, what with our fraught political and economic environment. This seems like another way for Obama to do something without actually doing anything that might make real voters angry. As we head into the final two years of his term, expect to see a lot more of that." Megan McArdle in Bloomberg View.

Top opinion

KRUGMAN: On inequality denial. "A while back I published an article...in which I described politically motivated efforts to deny the obvious — the sharp rise in U.S. inequality, especially at the very top of the income scale. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I found a lot of statistical malpractice in high places. Nor will it surprise you to learn that nothing much has changed. Not only do the usual suspects continue to deny the obvious, but they keep rolling out the same discredited arguments....What may surprise you is the year in which I published that article: 1992." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

SALAM: Pessimism about labor-market prospects in an automated world. "Are we being too pessimistic about the future labor market prospects of human workers in a world in which the pace of automation is accelerating? I tend to think that the answer is yes, provided we allow for the emergence of new business models that give rise to new modes of consumption, which in turn will create new opportunities for human endeavor....If, as Brink Lindsey suggests, regulatory accumulation limits our ability to respond creatively to technological change, the wave of creative destruction that is already transforming the legal industry might make us better able to navigate the larger current." Reihan Salam in National Review.

SAMUELSON: Not your grandpa's inequality. "It’s not the 1920s. One common line in the debate over economic inequality is that the income gaps between the rich and everyone else have reverted to levels not seen since the ’20s or earlier. The conclusion is damning. It implies that we’ve lost nearly a century of social progress. But as economist Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution shows, it’s 'flatly untrue': Inequality isn’t as great now as in the ’20s. This is history’s real lesson. Although the debate over inequality is legitimate and important, we shouldn’t distort it with misleading and overwrought rhetoric." Robert J. Samuelson in The Washington Post.

MICKLETHWAIT AND WOOLDRIDGE: In search of Gladstonian Republicans. "Few political parties have been better at reinventing themselves than the Republicans. But at the moment, when it comes to ideas, they are in a funk. American conservatives certainly know what they are against—most notably ObamaCare—but cannot agree on what they are for. The recent primaries only re-emphasized the gulf between the party's big business and tea party wings. Thanks to President Obama's weakness, the party might claw back the Senate this year, but, without a positive message, without a big idea, disaster beckons, yet again, in the presidential race in 2016." John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in The Wall Street Journal.

DIONNE: Are the reform conservatives serious? "It is conservatism’s current aversion to public intervention in the marketplace that is blocking efforts to grapple with the problems of inequality, slower job growth, and the diminishing prospects of a large number of our fellow citizens. To the extent that reform conservatives are willing to battle the Tea Party’s reflexive hostility to government, they will be part of the solution. But reform conservatism must still prove itself to be more than a slogan, more than a marketing campaign, more than that new pizza box. The Reformicons can be part of the historic correction the conservative movement badly needs — or they can settle for being sophisticated enablers of more of the same." E.J. Dionne Jr. in The Atlantic.

Astronomy interlude: New video shows solar eruption in detail.

2. The VA's new head has his work cut out for him

Internal VA audit confirms tampering with patient wait times. "More than 10% of audited Department of Veterans Affairs employees say they were instructed to falsify patient wait times, according to a report delivered to the president by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki just before he resigned Friday. The first phase of the VA's internal audit, ordered by Mr. Shinseki and conducted the week of May 12, also found that patient wait-time goals were unrealistic and the scheduling systems were too complex. The results confirm many of the findings of the VA's independent inspector general." Ben Kesling in The Wall Street Journal.

Explainer: A primer on the internal problems that led to VA health system scandal. Sandhya Somashekhar in The Washington Post.

Primary source: The VA audit executive summary.

Long read: How the VA developed its culture of coverups. David A. Fahrenthold in The Washington Post.

Shinseki's replacement already has a full plate. "The man taking the reins at the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs hasn’t been in the job for very long, but there’s a chance he could remain there until the close of the Obama administration....The political difficulties with finding someone to confirm in the heated environment of an unfolding VA scandal...could mean Gibson remains acting secretary through November or well beyond. For now, he’s got to hit the ground running, Obama said. The president said Gibson would take up Shinseki’s work 'firing many of the people' at the VA’s Phoenix facility and handling some of the other actions Shinseki put into motion." Philip Ewing in Politico.

That full plate also includes addressing cultural and a provider shortage... "The president and others say a cultural shift is required....The auditors conducting the internal review at the VA asked frontline staff — the ones booking appointments — what stood in the way of veterans getting timely care? And according to the report, the greatest single challenge was a lack of provider slots. In other words, there aren't enough doctors. It's a chronic problem that can't quickly or cheaply be fixed. And there are others." Tamara Keith in NPR.

...even though the VA budget has risen. "Without seeking to excuse the shabby treatment of America’s veterans, it is worth thinking about why the VA is so hard to run. Compared with other bits of government, it is fairly well funded: its budget has doubled since 2006. This is a big increase, but perhaps not enough to properly care for all the soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, on top of providing for all the Vietnam-era veterans as they age. One reason for this overload is that battlefield medicine has improved so much....As a result, the VA now has many more mangled bodies and minds to nurse. There is no cheap way to do this properly." The Economist.

Why Obamacare could boost VA care demand. "Nearly ten percent of veterans — about 1.3 million men and women who have served our country — are uninsured. Those veterans need to fulfill Obamacare's mandate to carry insurance or else pay a penalty, just like everyone else. Enrolling in VA coverage satisfies that mandate. This means you could see some veterans who are eligible for health benefits — but haven't yet signed up — deciding to enroll in that coverage to dodge Obamacare's penalties." Adrianna McIntyre in Vox. 

Maybe that explains why... Vets may need to seek private-sector care. NPR.

Explainers:

Sloan Gibson, at a glance. Dion Nissenbaum in The Wall Street Journal.

Who will replace Shinseki in the long term? Josh Hicks and Colby Itkowitz in The Washington Post.

An unusual move for the Obama administration. "Even when President Obama at last decided to fire someone for the scandal at the Veterans Affairs Administration, he made clear it was not his idea. In fact, Obama said, he had to be convinced by the man who was being let go....Technically speaking, Shinseki, 71, a retired general, offered his resignation and Obama accepted it, the White House said. But there was little question that the retired general was pushed out the door." David Nakamura in The Washington Post.

Primary sources:

President Obama's remarks announcing Shinseki's resignation. The Washington Post.

Eric Shinseki's farewell letter. The Washington Post.

The policy reasons that the case of Sebelius is different. "The difference between the two cabinet officials’ fates comes down to this: Sebelius’s firing would have increased the chaos surrounding the exchange websites and probably resulted in fewer people signing up for insurance coverage. It would have directly hurt the law. By contrast, Shinseki’s leaving does nothing to worsen the VA scandal. A new secretary who isn’t wrapped up in the problems will have more freedom to correct them." Joshua Green in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Explainer: The view on the Hill on Shinseki's resignation — a modest step forward. Sean Sullivan in The Washington Post.

More on the VA scandal:

Military care and VA care are separate but often confused. Julie Rovner in NPR.

How VA bonuses and performance ratings compare with the whole government. Eric Yoder in The Washington Post.

RUDALEVIGE: Measurement and management. "The Department of Veterans Affairs scandal roiling the Obama administration...effectively springs from a classic tenet of public administration. Simply put: what gets measured, gets done. This maxim has been attributed to various people (for Peter Drucker’s version see here), but the late, great James Q. Wilson put it this way, in his book 'Bureaucracy': 'work that produces measurable outcomes tends to drive out work that produces unmeasurable outcomes.'...But with the VA came another twist." Andrew Rudalevige in The Washington Post.

CASSIDY: Why Obama should have stuck with Shinseki. "In any publicly financed medical system, funding is a chronic problem, and so is internal organization....One possible solution would be to link the V.A.’s budget to the number of veterans and patients, effectively turning treatment into an entitlement program, but this hasn’t been done. Instead, Congress appropriates money for the agency in every budget cycle, and, in recent years, it has often come up short....That wasn’t Shinseki’s doing. He’d been quietly lobbying for more funding and more investment, which hasn’t been forthcoming. But now he is the fall guy. That is, unless President Obama stands up and tells people what the real problem is." John Cassidy in The New Yorker.

KLEIN: Obama's management problems. "It's clear that Obama doesn't personally hold Shinseki responsible for the problems at the VA. Quite the opposite: he thinks he's a victim whose career is being sacrificed to help calm this storm. He's furious about the abuses themselves just as he was furious about the deficiencies in HealthCare.Gov. But he never quite seems to be furious at the managers he's appointed to run these bureaucracies." Ezra Klein in Vox.

Graduation interlude: The greatest graduation speech ever, and it's not even 10 words long.

3. Does the GOP have a growing Obamacare problem?

A GOP retreat on Obamacare repeal? "Republican candidates have begun to retreat in recent weeks from their all-out assault on the Affordable Care Act in favor of a more piecemeal approach, suggesting they would preserve some aspects of the law while jettisoning others. The changing tactics signal that the health-care law — while still unpopular with voters overall — may no longer be the lone rallying cry for Republicans seeking to defeat Democrats in this year’s midterm elections. The moves also come as senior House Republicans have decided to postpone a floor vote on their own health-reform proposal, making it less likely that a GOP alternative will be on offer before the November elections." Juliet Eilperin and Robert Costa in The Washington Post.

The GOP has an alternative. But voters don't know that. "Conservative House Republicans are pushing for a vote on a GOP health-care plan, presumably to appeal to their base, to give GOP candidates health reform ideas to talk about on the campaign trail and to show that they have a policy position beyond repealing the Affordable Care Act. Polling shows they have a ways to go." Drew Altman in The Wall Street Journal.

Poll: Enough of this Obamacare politicking, already. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Another key poll finding: Obamacare's partisan divide is hacking our brains. "Obamacare is such a thoroughly partisan issue that even when voters are asked about their own lives, they answer along party lines. 'How has Obamacare affected you?' is a question whose answer depends on your income, how you get health insurance, and a couple of other demographics. But how people think Obamacare has affected them depends instead on their politics." Sam Baker in National Journal.

One of the GOP's Obamacare fears is coming true. "HealthCare.gov was originally conceived as a just-in-case alternative that would kick in if a state could not or would not build its own health reform enrollment system....Even when red states shunned a role in running Obamacare and a handful of blue states also turned to Washington, the federal system was still seen as a short-term bridge to a state-based system. Not anymore. After its fiasco of a start, HealthCare.gov is working. No one is pushing states with successful programs, like California and New York, to switch. But there are only a few of those. Most of the other states are in HealthCare.gov. And they‘re staying put." Kyle Cheney and Jennifer Haberkorn in Politico.

Obamacare less threatening to employer hiring. "The Affordable Care Act appears to be 'weighing less heavily' on plans of privately held companies to hire workers than it was a year ago, according to a survey of accountants asked about their business clients plans for the next 12 months. While U.S. private companies still worry about the law’s impact and more than half of firms, or 54 percent, saying they are 'less likely to hire' because of the ACA, the worries are much less than the two-thirds of private companies who said last year that they were less likely to hire." Bruce Japsen in Forbes.

ICYMI, the latest Health Reform Watch: The uncertain future of Obamacare’s small-business exchanges. Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

Other health care reads:

Obamacare prompts states to revisit their health rules. Holly Ramer in the Associated Press.

Ban lifted on Medicare coverage for sex-reassignment surgery. Ariana Eunjung Cha in The Washington Post.

Music interlude: Covering heavy metal...on a banjo.

4. The final word on Thomas Piketty and the inequality data controversy

Why Piketty's 'errors' aren't really errors. "Even though he expects people to improve on his work in the future, he still stands by it today, and the mistakes the Financial Times thinks it's found aren't actually mistakes — and that they'd know this if they'd read the appendices he put online....These alleged — emphasis here — errors fall into three categories: 1) transcription mistakes, 2) unexplained data tweaks and 3) in the case of Britain, incorrect data. But the problem with these problems...is that they aren't ones. They're questions. How did Piketty choose which source to use when they told different stories? How did he adjust them? And how much did his big-picture results depend on these decisions? All good questions — but still just questions." Matt O'Brien in The Washington Post.

Piketty doesn't give an inch. "Mr. Piketty...wrote that his data were correct, and his conclusions stood: Wealth inequality in Europe and the United States was high in the years before World War I, fell for much of the 20th century, and has been rising sharply again in the past three decades. He argued that many of the things that The Financial Times identified as sloppy or arbitrary were in fact considered choices, which he explained in footnotes. Reasonable people might disagree with some of his choices of how to handle the data, he says. But even where there’s room for debate, any reasonable changes to his methodology would be small and not alter the broad conclusions, he suggested." Neil Irwin in The New York Times.

Primary source: Piketty's full response.

Other economic/financial reads:

U.S. consumer spending dips; inflation creeps up. Lucia Mutikani in Reuters.

Uptick in inflation, weak labor market complicate Fed debate over future of stimulus. Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times.

5 things to watch on the economic calendar this week. Kathleen Madigan in The Wall Street Journal.

Fed officials say rates should not be used to fight bubbles. Ann Saphir in Reuters.

Panda interlude: Baby panda playing with bamboo.

5. What will happen in the GOP civil war?

The struggle over the GOP’s future continues. "There was plenty of strong rhetoric coming from the stage at the Republican Leadership Conference....From 'Duck Dynasty’s' Phil Robertson to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to a succession of others, the call for a return to first principles and strict adherence to conservative convictions was loud and clear. But there was another message as well, delivered most forcefully by former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour: a reminder to the delegates in attendance that the main purpose of a political party is to win elections in order to govern. 'I hope we will not let purity be the enemy of victory,' Barbour told them." Dan Balz in The Washington Post.

Mississippi: The tea party's last big shot this year? "The ultimate test of its strength will come on Tuesday in Mississippi, where Senator Thad Cochran, a 76-year-old master of pork-barrel spending who is seeking a seventh term, will face a challenge from State Senator Chris McDaniel, who has attracted support from Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and an array of conservative groups. After the Mississippi results are in, Tea Party-aligned forces will have little opportunity to upend mainline Republicans, or even throw them much of a scare." Jonathan Martin in The New York Times.

Cheat sheet: House and Senate primaries in June. Emily Cahn in Roll Call.

Actually, look to some governor's races. "Republicans have gone all-in on mainstream candidates in this year's battleground primaries to maximize their chances of winning elections. But two tea-party candidates for governor could grind those efforts to a halt in California and Colorado, two Western states where the party has struggled in recent years. California state legislator Tim Donnelly and former Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado are both capable of winning their party's primaries in June." Karyn Bruggeman in National Journal.

Other political reads:

Why the GOP won't embrace gay marriage anytime soon. Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Tea party looks to cut its losses in Georgia's Senate primary runoff. Christina A. Cassidy in the Associated Press.

'Gangnam Style' interlude: Check out where the view count on this is now.

Wonkblog roundup

50 Shades of Fed. Jim Tankersley.

There are 39 major studio releases coming this summer. Only one is directed by a woman. Christopher Ingraham.

The paradox of this recovery, in two charts. Jim Tankersley.

Piketty’s "errors" aren’t mistakes: They’re questions, and he answered them. Matt O'Brien.

The weird Google searches of the unemployed and what they say about the economy. Ylan Q. Mui.

The uncertain future of Obamacare’s small business exchanges. Jason Millman.

Congressmen propose new commission to fix Social Security. Jonnelle Marte.

100 years of growth of the American shopping mall, animated. Emily Badger.

Et Cetera

House proposal to boost highway fund faces Senate resistance. Laura Litvan and Derek Wallbank in Bloomberg.

NSA collecting millions of faces from Web images. James Risen and Laura Poitras in The New York Times.

New guidelines issued to Border Patrol on use of deadly force. Brian Bennett in the Los Angeles Times.

FCC may consider a stricter definition of broadband. Brian Fung in The Washington Post.

Yes, the House actually passed gun legislation (albeit a modest bill). Elahe Izadi in National Journal.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams and Ryan McCarthy.

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