Putting The Process Back To Work

President Obama described the last Congress as one of the least productive in history — and he was right.  The last Congress passed only a handful of bills that were ultimately signed into law, and was characterized by constant backbiting and finger-pointing.

As of this week there’s a new Congress in town, one in which both the House and the Senate are controlled by large Republican majorities and have an ambitious legislative agenda.  And already President Obama has signaled that he would veto one of the bills that the Republicans want to pass first — an initiative that would authorize construction of the Keystone pipeline.

Oh, no!  More of that conflict and gridlock that commentators bemoan!  I guess that means the swearing-in of the new Congress won’t change anything, right?

Not so fast!  If I recall my civics lessons, what we’re seeing signs of now is how the process is supposed to work.  The House and Senate write legislation, hold hearings, have floor debates at which amendments are offered, and vote to pass actual, written bills, conference committees resolve differences between the Senate version and the House version, and the President then decides whether to sign or veto.  Public veto threats in advance are one method the President can employ to influence the course and content of legislation.  And if Congress passes the bill and the President carries through on his threat, Congress can decide whether to try to override that veto.

We’ve become so used to a shriveled, do-nothing Congress that seemed to exist simply to react to the initiatives of Presidents Bush and Obama that we’ve forgotten that the legislative branch is supposed to be a powerful, coordinate branch of government.  It’s early yet, obviously, and I certainly won’t agree with the full spectrum of the Republican congressional agenda, but I’m glad that the new Congress at least seems intent on doing what Congress is supposed to be doing — and thereby putting our constitutional process back to work.  After all, the system has worked pretty well for more than 200 years.

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Two Sides to Every Dispute

Here’s is an interesting article which points out reasons why the Keystone pipeline was a bad deal all along. Of course this is contrary to Bob’s article and point of view expressed in his blog earlier today, but in an effort to be fair and balanced I thought it was worth posting. This decision was clearly not an easy one for the president.

If you don’t have time to read the article here is a brief recap.

TransCanada made it known that most if not all of the extracted and refined oil from the pipeline would be exported and sold over seas not kept in the United States.

Currently their are Canadian oil reserves stored in the midwest and part of the pipeline deal was that TransCanada could drain these reserves and export them which would raise gas prices in the United States especially in the Midwest.

The original TransCanada permit application stated there would be a peak workforce of 3,500 temporary jobs.

The current Keystone pipeline in Canada leaked twelve times last year.

Nebraska Republican Governor Heineman opposed the pipeline because the proposed route of the pipeline was to run through an aquifer in the state that supplies clean drinking water to 2 million Americans plus water for the agriculture industry. His reasoning was does it make since to create 3,500 temporary jobs when even a minor spill near the aquifer would jeopardize more jobs not to mention the health of the citizens of his state.

I’m not saying the pipeline is a bad idea, but I have no problem with the Obama administration taking their time to consider this project carefully. Have we already forgotten our frustrations watching video day after day of the Gulf Oil spill releasing oil into the ocean ?

The Keystone Pipeline And Lilliput

Today President Obama rejected a proposal to build the Keystone Pipeline. It is one of those decisions, I think, that carries a deeper message about our country, its leaders, and where we are headed.

The proposed pipeline would run 1,700 miles, carrying oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.  It was opposed by environmentalists, who hate the idea of a pipeline crossing the heartland and argue that it would invade sensitive environmental areas in Nebraska.  It was supported by business and labor unions, who say it would be like a colossal public works project — except the $7 billion cost wouldn’t be paid by the government, but by the company that wants to build the pipeline.

The pipeline issue posed a difficult political choice — so the Obama Administration punted and blamed Congress.  The State Department said that the denial was due to Congress imposing an unreasonable 60-day deadline on the Administration’s decision on the project.  Congress, of course, says the 60-day deadline was necessary because the Administration was dithering and proposed to delay any decision until after the 2012 election.  The story linked suggests that the Administration’s decision today was motivated by various carefully weighed political considerations.

The deeper message, I think, is that we increasingly seem to be a country that can’t get things done.  In my view, approving the pipeline makes sense.  It would create lots of jobs during these tough times.  It would inject huge sums into our economy.  It would allow us to get more oil from a safe source, rather than relying on oil from more volatile areas of the world.  Given Iran’s latest saber-rattling talk about closing the Straits of Hormuz, the latter point may be the most important point of all.  (And don’t talk to me about focusing on alternative renewable sources of energy — the reality is that we need oil now and will need it for the foreseeable future.  Our energy needs aren’t going to be met by the magical ministrations of Tankerbelle, the petroleum fairy.)

Obviously, environmental issues must be considered in deciding where the pipeline should go — but why should they quash it altogether?  It already is designed to run through the sparsely populated  central region of the United States.  We need to remember that we live in a country that is criss-crossed and tunneled through with pipelines, power lines, generators, underground storage tanks, highways, railroad, and other delivery systems.  I’m confident that the experts can find an appropriate location for this pipeline and install the protections needed to make it as safe as is reasonably practicable in an uncertain world.

America used to be fabulous at this type of massive project, like the transcontinental railroad, the Hoover Dam, the Panama Canal, or many others.  Those projects had broad political support because they promoted development and commerce.  Does anyone doubt that Democratic Party icons like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson would approve this pipeline?  Conversely, does anyone think the interstate highway system could have been built so speedily if the current regulatory morass that has grown up around consideration of environmental issues existed in the ’50s and ’60s?  Consider that, the next time you drive on our interstates and see the hills that have been sheared off or tunneled through so that you can get from point A to point B at 65 mph.

So now we’ll wring our hands, and hire consultants, and do impact studies for months and years more — all the while leaving people without a job unemployed when they could be working, leaving our economy moribund when it could be helped, and leaving our reliance on energy from volatile regions unchecked when it could be reduced.  Does any of that really make any sense for our country?

America has become like Gulliver, the slumbering giant tied down by thousands of Lilliputian restraints and political considerations and regulations and standards and policies and statutory notice and comment requirements, to the point where it is unable to move.  We need to break those ties and start moving again.