Broom of the System
Now that health-care reform has passed—and financial reform is moving along—the Senate’s fight over cap-and-trade legislation is just around the corner. Yet obscured in the debate is the fact that the U.S. already has a law giving the Environmental Protection Agency the responsibility to regulate greenhouse emissions. It’s called the Clean Air Act, and it’s been around since 1963.
Under the current version of the act, which has been amended significantly since passage, the EPA is required to control “any air pollutant” emanating from a motor vehicle that contributes to “air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” Enforcing this is not optional; indeed, the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, given their contribution to climate change. To comply, the EPA has adopted regulations controlling car emissions that will require car companies’ fleets to average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. Additional regulations controlling emissions from power plants are expected shortly.
Like most left-of-center people, I strongly support the health care bill that passed the House Sunday afternoon. The concrete benefits are familiar, but always worth repeating. According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, it would reduce the ranks of the uninsured by 32 million by 2019, ultimately ensuring that 95 percent of non-elderly legal residents of the U.S. will have coverage. In doing so, it will make a large dent in the 45,000 yearly deaths attributable to a lack of health insurance. It will ban clearly unjust practices, such as denying coverage based on a pre-existing illness or disability, and reduce premiums for many working class families.
Just as critically, this bill will finally establish the provision of basic health services as the responsibility of the federal government. Before this bill, America was a country where the government could disclaim responsibility when its citizens suffered and died early due to diseases beyond their control. Now, such cruel neglect is not an option.
One has to wonder what made Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) so eager to introduce their new tax reform plan last week. The problem is not with the plan itself, which is fine policy-wise. It simplifies the personal income tax into three rates—15 percent, 25 percent, and 35 percent—and eliminating most deductions while tripling the standard deduction, which has the potential to make the tax more progressive, as many deductions are only claimed by filers well-off enough to hire accountants or to have the spare time to file long returns themselves.
The problem is that this has been tried before. In 1986, Senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Congressman Dick Gephardt (D-Mont.) wrote and President Reagan signed a similar proposal, which paid for a sharp cut in the top income tax bracket by radically reducing the number of deductions and tax incentives. While by no means perfect, it was a worthwhile measure that ended numerous special interest carve-outs in the tax code. Or rather, delayed them. Within a few years of passage, many of the same incentives returned due to aggressive corporate pressure, and eventually we arrived at our current code, which is complicated enough to spur simplification efforts like Wyden and Gregg’s. Do today’s reformers really expect a more permanent fate for their effort?
Two weeks ago, Newsweek put out a cute video entitled “The Decade in 7 Minutes,” condensing notable news events of the past 10 years into a seven-minute montage.
While most of the content is free of editorial comment, the program’s treatment of one event stands out. As the year 2007 begins, the narrator of the video intones, “The U.S. undertakes a surge of more troops in Iraq. Opponents say it won’t work. It does.”