It would obviously be irresponsible for an outgoing president to purport to sign the American people up to international commitments based on a domestic energy plan that is likely illegal, that half the states have sued to halt, that Congress has voted to reject and that his successor could do away with in a few months’ time.
But that’s just what President Barack Obama is proposing to do at a U.N. climate conference in Paris starting Monday. The president’s international negotiating partners at that conference should proceed with caution before entering into an unattainable deal with this administration, because commitments the president makes there would rest on a house of cards of his own making.
It’s worth remembering how we got here.
Obama assumed office with smashing majorities in both houses of Congress. Democrats used the opportunity to pass one left-wing policy after the next. But even with the left at its generational zenith, the president could not persuade his party to pass an anti-middle class energy tax that would have punished the poor and shipped more American jobs overseas.
This frustrated Obama. When the American people voted to strip his party of congressional control, he was frustrated further. So he decided to impose a similarly regressive energy policy, his so-called Clean Power Plan, by executive fiat. Obama’s Harvard Law School mentor, Professor Laurence Tribe, has likened this to “burning the Constitution.”
While the president has tried his best to dress this ideological attack on the middle class as “climate policy,” in reality it could increase emissions by offshoring American manufacturing to countries that lack our environmental standards.
What his power plan will do is unfairly punish Americans who can least afford it. It could result in the elimination of as many as a quarter of a million U.S. jobs. It could raise energy costs in more than 40 states, with double-digit increases in states such as my home state of Kentucky.
Predictably, the president’s attack on the middle class - one that won’t even meaningfully affect global carbon emissions - has received loud applause from wealthy left-wingers who just want to pat themselves on the back for “doing something.” Lost jobs or higher energy bills may be a mere trifle for some on the left, but it’s a different story for a senior citizen on a fixed income or for a working mom who struggles paycheck to paycheck.
Few expect this anti-middle class power plan to last much beyond the months remaining in Obama’s term though. The courts appear likely to strike it down, the next president could tear it up, more than half of the 50 states have filed suit against it, and – critically – a bipartisan majority in both chambers of Congress just approved legislation to expressly reject it.
That bipartisan opposition in Congress remains even if Obama tries to veto the legislation we passed. So it wouldn’t make much sense to ask Congress to allocate resources for global commitments predicated on a plan the president went around Congress to impose - nor would it make sense for Obama to try to make those commitments in the first place.
Let’s not forget that just a few months ago the administration unveiled what it hailed as a landmark carbon-reduction deal with China. The deal bound the hands of American workers without asking much of China in return. It turns out China cheated and underreported its annual coal consumption by 600 million tons, a single revision equivalent to 70 percent of the coal used in our country in a year.
Just think about the scale of that for a moment.
It’s unclear what the president hopes to achieve at this U.N. conference, given that Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that there are “not going to be legally binding reduction targets” and that large countries including Japan have echoed the sentiment. But this much is clear. We know that the president is concerned with his legacy, and we know that he often prioritizes symbolism over substance. If Obama thinks it’s okay to push a power plan that threatens working families for the benefit of, at best, a carbon rounding error, then he should say so.
But Congress and more than half of the states have already made clear that he won’t be speaking for us. The courts will also continue working to determine if this power plan is legal.
These are things we will all keep in mind as the U.N. conference commences.
Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Louisville, is majority leader of the U.S. Senate. This piece was first published in The Washington Post on Nov. 29.