With his flurry of four dozen or so executive orders to date, Joe Biden’s hit the White House floor running. Some reverse harmful artifacts of the previous administration. Nearly all acknowledge crises facing America and the world, paramount among them climate change, the pandemic, and asymmetric human migration. Using a few prudent strokes of the pen, approval ratings buoyant, Biden’s rejoined the Paris Accord, revoked permits for Keystone XL, and negated withdrawal from the WHO. By directing agencies to review and reverse 100 or so of Trump’s misguided attacks on the environment, he’s setting a tone for rational and progressive governance. Evidence-based decision making should be Biden’s hallmark now that he’s reestablished the presidential advisory council on science and technology and directed the S & T Policy Office to ensure scientific integrity across all federal agencies. Restoring collective bargaining power and worker protections for federal employees also lays groundwork for a $15/hour minimum wage.
With the end of the Cold War (1991), America’s preeminent military power established an imperial republic. On the domestic front, we’ve internalized hegemony as well. Polk, Lincoln, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, Johnston and Nixon all committed troops to military engagements without congressional approval. Not only has that become modus operandi since abolishing the draft, but Congress, due to its paralysis, keeps abdicating legislative responsibilities to the executive branch. Every recent president has taken advantage. Executive orders proliferate because the House and Senate can’t perceive, much less articulate the common good, afraid that anything egalitarian, futuristic or preventive will sacrifice votes. Congress exists, as Andrew Bacevich contends, solely to ensure reelection of its members. While executive orders seem constitutionally suspect, it’s inaction by the legislative branch that, by default, expands presidential powers. Difficult times demand hard and fast laws, however, and executive orders aren’t legislation, just directives from the POTUS to manage affairs, some ephemeral, others legacy.
Why then would anyone object to using the Defense Production Act to accelerate the manufacture and delivery of supplies for COVID vaccinations, testing and PPE or to requiring masks on public transportation or to “100 Day Masking Challenges?” Designating climate change a necessary part of U.S. foreign policy and national security decisions is also a no-brainer, hopefully leading to much more ambitious carbon emission limits by April 22. As for halting Keystone XL and the loss of Montana construction jobs, those were unsustainable from the start, easily replaced by green and other infrastructure initiatives, and compensable during the interim. More conduit and pump stations from Hardisty, Alberta’s Tank Terminals to Steele City, Nebraska may shorten deliveries, but prolongs our addiction to fossil fuels. That kind of anachronism, born of 20th century economics, doesn’t address 21st century realities. The Earth is warming, dangerously so, from anthropogenic carbon emissions, and green energy jobs are far more sustainable than those generated by fossil fuels. Pittsburgh, for example, was the nation’s first petroleum capital after Edwin Drake and William A. “Uncle Billy” Smith struck oil near Titusville in 1859. Before that, oil was considered a nuisance by western Pennsylvania’s early settlers, who sometimes encountered it in the groundwater or digging brine wells to make salt. Pittsburgh’s also atop natural gas and coal deposits, but more people in Pittsburgh have green energy jobs than coal, natural gas and oil combined. Jed Clampett’s days are numbered.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.