Following President Obama’s request to the EPA to reconsider whether states should be allowed to set stricter tailpipe emissions than set by the U.S. government, the New York Times speculated that Obama’s action signaled a move toward broadening the role of states. The Times argued that the new administration is supportive of “progressive federalism”, a movement made by state governors and attorneys general to enact, among other things, tougher laws on consumer protection and environmental initiatives than provided within the federal framework. If we are headed toward a new movement in progressive federalism, will we then see an influx of state-led environmental initiatives? And, if not, what role will the state’s initiatives play in Obama’s agenda?

The possibility for an influx in state-led initiatives exists and the presidential honeymoon period seems an ideal time for governors and attorneys general to put forth their own agendas for change. However, the current economic crisis will likely curtail any such state aspirations. Many U.S. states are running significant deficits including a state of crisis in California. Therefore, enacting environmental initiatives by states will likely prove extremely difficult if not backed by federal funding. 

Furthermore, this move by Obama does more to counteract bad Bush policies than signify a new direction for the EPA and state rights. The article by the New York Times failed to mention that the rejection of California’s request to set tougher emission standards by Bush’s EPA was the first of its kind in 40 years. Prior to this, the EPA allowed states to exceed requirements set forth by the federal government. This action by the Obama administration, then, was not only an attempt to strengthen tailpipe emission standards; it also serves President Obama’s interest in reversing dangerous precedents set forth by the Bush administration.

In addition to counteracting Bush policies, revisiting California’s request to the EPA falls in line with Obama’s Energy and Environment agenda. Darren Hutchinson, Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law, argues that Obama’s support for state-led environmental reform only occurred because states were seeking to tighten – not loosen – tailpipe emission standards. In this instance, according to Hutchinson, Obama “is using states to promote more progressive ideas than the national politics would tolerate.”  

If Hutchinson is correct, which I suspect that he is, then we will likely only see support by the Obama administration for state-led initiatives that are in line with his agenda such as greening the United States image. Efforts by states to retaliate against Obama’s climate change initiatives will likely be met with much less support by the Obama administration. For all of these reasons, a strong push toward progressive federalism seems unlikely at this point in time. Rather, we will likely see a mix of both state and federal initiatives, provided that the states’ initiatives fit in to Obama’s vision for the United States.

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