The answer is climate change—at least if the question is “why should we keep a costly and ineffective government agency." The Obama Administration’s recent repurposing of a heretofore moribund government agency as a tool to soften the impact of climate change—a move heralded in a recent Washington Post article—is more than just a political master stroke: It represents the logical progression of strategy for climate change warriors who won’t let congressional inaction stop them in their quest to save the earth.
The Denali Commission’s corrupt inception, ineffective existence, spastic death throes and eventual salvation at the hands of the president is more than just a metaphor for government run amuck: It also happens to perfectly encapsulate what the fight over global warming has morphed into—an all-encompassing excuse for the expansion of government.
The commission was itself the product of an earlier era, when the chairmen of appropriations committees could create and fund dubious home-state projects in election years. The ostensible purpose of the Denali Commission was to help isolated Alaskan communities--possibly a worthy mission, although why it would be a federal rather than a state-sponsored mission is a mystery to me, given Alaska’s abundant oil wealth and the tenth amendment. (But I digress.)
It turns out that the commission was completely ineffective, so much so that its own inspector general concluded that it should be abolished, a sentiment with which the General Accountability Office concurred. In 2011, the newly Republican Congress seemed inclined to put it out of its existence, especially after imposing a ban on earmarks, but the state’s congressional delegation kept it alive on life support.
The delegation’s machinations appear to have paid off. The administration announced during the president’s visit to Alaska last week that the Denali Commission will be repurposed to help small communities adjust to the impact that climate change will have on their economy and way of life.
It’s a deft move politically, as it gives three Republicans in Congress a reason to pay lip service to the dangers of climate change. Given the pittance the Denali Commission will cost, the president may have struck a bargain. Climate change has become the be-all and end-all for many Democrats and nearly all environmentalists, the lens through which they see every policy debate.
Stymied at the federal level, the liberal war on climate change will likely bring about a lot more repurposing of agencies, additional action at the state and local level, and--most importantly—further action from the EPA, which has already been given a lot of leeway by the courts to treat CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, allowing it to impose regulations to mitigate its rise.
The conservative answer to this war on multiple fronts has been to just say no and refuse to engage on the matter. That’s a nihilistic response. The climate change car is out of the barn and driving down the road.
Let me suggest another path.
A comprehensive tax reform that uses revenues from a carbon tax to reduce other, more harmful taxes and engenders a modicum of relief from further regulatory chicanery would be an unmitigated win for conservatives, and the planet. A carbon tax is less bad than the income tax, especially in a world where both small businesses and the working poor face effective marginal tax rates in excess of 50% and where the U.S. corporate tax rate is amongst the highest in the world.
The honest response to this (besides that tax economists see tax reform as an answer to everything) is that there’s no way to ensure that the environmental left will back down from further administrative measures if they were given a carbon tax. Fair enough—we will never get the left to drop current EPA greenhouse gas regulations for a carbon tax—but it will be much more difficult for them to win the support of voters for additional, costly actions when everyone’s already paying more to drive or heat their home to fight climate change, and if it helps us to kill a few Denali Commissions along the way, or potentially rein in future EPA actions, so much the better.