Will: Democrats' theater of pointless gestures
WASHINGTON – Seventeen days before President Donald Trump, his spoken oath of office still lingering in the wintry air, lifts his left hand from Scripture (a leather-bound edition of "The Art of the Deal"), the Republican-controlled Congress will begin working. Fittingly, on Jan. 3 the First Branch of government will go first, flexing its somewhat atrophied Article I muscles.
When Trump reaches his desk on the morning of Jan. 21, he should find there two congressional measures emblematic of how quickly elections can have consequences. One should be the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act (REINS). The other should be legislation mandating construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. As president, Trump will have the authority and intent to proceed with construction, but Congress should make the point that this concerns national policy, which Congress should set.
The REINS Act would begin Congress's retrieval from the executive branch of responsibilities the Founders vested in the legislative branch. The act would sharply slow the growth of regulations that are suffocating economic growth. REINS would require Congress to vote on — to have its fingerprints on — all "major" regulations, understood as those with an annual economic impact of at least $100 million. Congress would thus take responsibility for, and be held accountable for, the substance that executive agencies' rule making pours into the almost-empty vessels that Congress imprecisely calls "laws."
After the preamble, the Constitution's first substantive word is "all": "All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress." But the more than 170,000 pages of the Code of Federal Regulations contain tens of thousands of rules promulgated by largely unaccountable agencies. The agencies fill voids in congressional "laws" such as the Dodd-Frank financial reform, which mandates, but does not define — that is left to executive rule makers — "fair, transparent and competitive" financial products and services. As of five years ago — it is substantially worse now — the government itself estimated that regulations cost the economy more than $1.75 trillion, almost twice the sum of income tax receipts then.
Opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline has illustrated environmentalism's, and the Democratic Party's, descent into the theater of pointless gestures. The nation is crisscrossed with more than 2 million miles of natural gas pipelines and 175,000 miles of pipelines carrying hazardous liquids. Yet our theatrically thoughtful current president wasted seven years pretending to ponder the weighty question of whether Keystone's 1,179 miles — bringing oil from Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska — might somehow menace the nation and planet.
Some of the oil would be from Canada's tar sands. Keystone opponents say such oil is especially "dirty," so the pipeline, by enabling the oil to get to market, would injure the climate. But even if the opponents' allegations about the tar sands oil can be trusted, the allegations are irrelevant: The opponents evidently believe that if the pipeline is not built, Canada will simply say "Oh, dang!" and leave the world's third-largest proven crude oil reserve — larger than Iran's — locked up in the tar sands. The opponents evidently think that if they block the pipeline, this vast wealth will not find another way into the international oil market.
Furthermore, without Keystone XL, more oil will be transported by trains, which have notable carbon footprints and sometimes spectacular spills. Hence legislation mandating the pipeline's construction will not only create jobs, which once upon a time was a Democratic priority, it should soothe climate anxieties.
So, Congress should call this Keystone XL legislation the "Zach, We Feel Your Pain Act." After the election, someone reportedly named Zach, a Democratic National Committee staffer, suffered a hilarious eruption of hysteria. In the process of blaming DNC interim Chair Donna Brazile for the lost election (wrong woman, Zach), he said, according to The Huffington Post:
"You and your friends will die of old age and I'm going to die from climate change. You and your friends let this happen, which is going to cut 40 years off my life expectancy."
Well. Suppose Zach is 30 and expects that, although he appears to be unhealthily excitable, his life expectancy is 90. If climate change subtracts 40 of Zach's years, it is going to kill him within 20 years. Perhaps Zach can take grim pleasure from the fact that Brazile, a vigorous and cheerful 56, probably will still be spry when the Grim Climate Reaper swings his deadly scythe. Be that as it may, consider that Zach's scary arithmetic probably represents commonplace thinking within the Democratic Party, aka "the party of science."
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.