Democrats opposed to the Trump administration’s proposal to freeze fuel efficiency standards have limited options to fight back in the halls and floor of Congress, but the one option they do have comes straight from the GOP deregulatory playbook.
Once finalized, Democrats, led by top members on the Environment and Public Works Committee, plan to introduce a Congressional Review Act resolution to overturn the Trump administration’s fuel efficiency strategy, Sen. Edward J. Markey told reporters on a phone conference in response to the administration’s proposal Thursday.
“We’ll use every tool available to block the Trump administration’s U-turn on fuel efficiency,” the Massachusetts Democrat said, adding later, “We won’t stop until this misguided change is put in the rearview mirror.”
Under this GOP-controlled Congress, that gambit is unlikely to advance. And with President Donald Trump in the White House, the group would need a veto-proof majority to prevent the changes from going forward, should they actually receive and win a floor vote.
That calculation could change next year depending on the outcome of the November midterm election. The timeline could then align with the finalization of the fuel efficiency changes, as the proposed rule still needs to work its way through a lengthy public comment process.
“We are going to fight like hell to make sure what was proposed does not get enacted,” said the panel’s ranking member, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware.
Congressional Review Act resolutions dominated the early legislative action of the 115th Congress, as Republicans looked to roll back Obama-era regulations made final in the last few months of that administration. The resolution enables Congress to essentially void an executive branch regulation it deems misguided or unnecessary.
Including stream protection regulations and guidance on auto loan discrimination protection, Republicans have successfully enacted 16 CRA resolutions to nullify Obama-era regulations this Congress.
Markey noted that Democrats, along with Republicans Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and John Kennedy of Louisiana, were able to pass a Congressional Review Act resolution earlier this summer to nullify the Federal Communication Commission’s rollback of net neutrality regulations on a 52-47 vote after a lengthy national campaign. That will be the strategy for the fuel efficiency freeze.
At issue is the Trump administration’s release Thursday of its anticipated proposal to halt regulations tightening vehicle fuel efficiency and pollution standards, laying the groundwork for a nationwide battle over whether the federal government can preempt California’s ability to set its own requirements.
In a notice of proposed rulemaking, the EPA and Transportation Department would freeze the standards at 2020 levels through 2026. The proposal would reverse an Obama administration rule to raise mileage standards to an average 54.5 mpg, and would revoke a waiver that allows California and 12 other states and the District of Columbia to set more stringent targets.
The Trump administration argues the new standards strike a regulatory balance between costs, road safety, fuel consumption, pollution and other regulatory factors. In their summary of the notice, the administration argues the proposal will prevent “thousands of on-road fatalities and injuries” because it will not force automakers to use lighter materials to improve efficiency.
The administration asserts the freeze will also improve vehicle affordability “leading to increased use of newer, safer, cleaner and more efficient vehicles.”
Democratic lawmakers and environmental groups argue the move will harm the environment, however. They are gearing up for a legal and political battle, particularly over the California waiver.
The state’s Democrats in Washington and Sacramento have come out aggressively against the proposal. Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement that the state “will fight this stupidity in every conceivable way possible.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a statement Thursday that there is no need to change the standards, and that the state is “not going to let him” change its emissions standards.
“Californians have a right to breathe clean air, and we’re not giving that up to President Trump without a fight,” Feinstein said.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra signaled in July a willingness to take the administration to court to protect the state’s authority.
“To the Trump administration: make no mistake about it — we are ready to use every legal tool at our disposal to protect the current vehicle emission standards,” Becerra said July 19, responding to reports the waiver might be revoked.
Democrats have called for the auto sector and states like California to reach a compromise on stricter fuel efficiency and emissions standards.
At a Senate Environment and Public Works hearing Wednesday, Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler appeared receptive to Democrats’ requests for the EPA to allow automobile manufacturers and California to reach a compromise. He said it was the administration’s goal to come up with a “50-state solution that does not necessitate pre-empting California.”
However, Thursday’s proposal may have undone the goodwill Wheeler appeared to earn at the hearing. Carper in a statement noted the administration’s “ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
Watch: Markey Challenges New EPA Chief on Pollution Rules