The Missing Ingredient in the Green New Deal

by James Goodwin

March 07, 2019

To this point, much of the focus in the discussion over the Green New Deal has been on the substance of the vision it lays out for a better society – and why shouldn't it be? There's some really exciting stuff included in the Green New Deal's toplines, which are by now well-rehearsed: a full-scale mobilization plan put in place over the next 10 years to get the United States to net zero carbon emissions; major government investments in clean energy infrastructure, energy efficiency upgrades for all buildings, and public transportation systems; ensuring a just transition for communities and workers reliant on the fossil fuel-based economy; guaranteed jobs with family-supporting wages; universal health care; and universal higher education.

Receiving scant, if any, attention, though, are the kinds of processes and institutions that will be necessary for implementing the Green New Deal's substantive vision. While these kinds of first-order issues are boring, wonky, and unsexy (Believe me! I would know!), they will play an outsized role in determining how well or even whether Green New Deal policies that do become law translate into meaningful changes on the ground. These issues remain, at least for the time being, a key missing ingredient in the Green New Deal.

Let me reframe these issues in slightly more concrete terms: Achieving the substantive vision set out in the Green New Deal will require an enormous and modernized administrative structure, one that is not only larger in scope but fundamentally different in design from what we have today. The administrative structure we currently have – that is, the federal agencies charged with implementing laws and the institutions and procedures they rely on in doing so – is quite simply not up to the task.

Decades of attacks from anti-government lawmakers and corporate interests have succeeded in reducing the federal administrative apparatus to a state of dysfunction. Political and economic elites have managed to capture and distort its institutions and procedures, commandeering them to advance their own economic interests at the expense of the public welfare. And in a stroke of strategic genius, the authors of this ongoing campaign have leveraged the resulting dysfunction to sour public opinion on what otherwise should be venerable institutions – the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example. The result has been a self-fulfilling downward spiral of institutional failure provoking public distrust and disrespect that fuels yet more institutional failure.

The results of this dysfunction are made manifest on a near daily basis in the newspaper headlines. Outbreaks of pathogens in our food supply, PFAS-contaminated drinking water, and unsafe and unhealthy conditions in public housing – all stories of preventable harms that trace back to the failure of resource-starved institutions. Episodes in which administrative agencies successfully fulfill the mandate of such bedrock statutes as the Clean Air Act and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act still occur thanks to the perseverance and expertise of dedicated public servants, but they are increasingly the exception rather than the rule.

What would such a "Green New Administrative Structure" look like? Broadly speaking, it would seek to place ordinary Americans firmly at the center of its sphere of concern. Practically speaking, this would involve an ongoing project of ensuring that both the administrative system's outcomes and inputs remain "people focused." People-focused outcomes would demand the creation and maintenance of procedures and institutions aimed not just at maximizing the benefits that that Green New Deal policies create for ordinary Americans, but also at ensuring that the enjoyment of these benefits is shared as widely as possible, with particular attention to historically disadvantaged communities and populations. This would necessarily include designing new mechanisms to insulate agencies against political interference and excluding or at least relegating in importance concerns for categorically non-people-focused issues, such as "profits" or "economic growth," as well as for the various Trojan Horse arguments the right raises as a cover for their straightforward greed, such as the promotion of "consumer choice" as a rationale for allowing unsafe products and services to stay on the market.

People-focused inputs would seek to create more meaningful opportunities for public participation in administrative decision-making, implementation, and enforcement. Such people-focused inputs would result in higher quality and more people-focused outcomes. They would also serve to imbue the administrative apparatus and the impacts it makes on our lives with enhanced public esteem and a crucial measure of democratic legitimacy.

Unfortunately, rebuilding our administrative structure so that it is worthy of the Green New Deal will involve getting into some wonky weeds. Take the issue of cost-benefit analysis, for example. This methodology has become so firmly entrenched in the rulemaking process – assuming an undue prominence, if not determinative role, in agency decision-making – that it is hard to hard to imagine the regulatory world that existed without it long before.

The hegemony of corporate-focused cost-benefit analysis as the chosen decision-making standard did not just happen naturally or accidentally. Instead, it is the product of a concerted decades-long campaign carried out by conservative and pro-industry foundations, and the advocacy organizations, think tanks, lobbyists, and trade associations they fund. They recognized the strategic value cost-benefit analysis offered by providing an ostensibly neutral (indeed even salutary) analytical tool that would in reality surreptitiously load the rulemaking dice to favor industry interests to the exclusion of public protections. All the while, cost-benefit analysis provides regulatory opponents with a powerful weapon for denigrating, delaying, and weakening rules they find inconvenient to their bottom line.

Procedurally speaking, cost-benefit analysis is also inherently exclusive to ordinary members of the public. For the vast majority of us who lack specialized training in economics and risk assessment techniques, simply reading and comprehending a cost-benefit analysis is out of the question. Actually influencing the conduct of these analyses to the point of affecting the outcome of a regulatory decision is reserved for the most rarefied of regulatory "stakeholders" – nearly all of whom, not coincidentally, are on the side of weaker protections and more public harms purchased at the price of greater industry profits. At best, citizens are relegated to the role of passively inspecting the numbers contained in a cost-benefit analysis as if they were items on a grocery store receipt.

Even now, opponents of protective safeguards are deploying cost-benefit analysis to defeat the public interest. At the behest of the coal mining industry, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler (a former lobbyist for the coal mining industry) is seeking to manipulate the cost-benefit analysis in support of a vital safeguard that has succeeded in limiting emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from coal-fired power plants. Specifically, Wheeler wants to rig the numbers on the analysis to make the rule look like a huge drain on society by willfully ignoring the "co-benefits" it produces (that is, the positive public health and environmental consequences that are unrelated to hazardous air pollution reduction) – a move that would render this rule susceptible to being struck down in the courts down the road.

The good news is that what has been done can be undone. We do not need to passively accept the administrative structure as it is now constituted. With proper planning and work, we can reform and rebuild it into what we need.

This is important because if the Green New Deal is to succeed, maladies like cost-benefit analysis will have to be excised from the organs of the administrative structure. And this illustrates just one of the many kinds of reforms that will be necessary to transform our administrative institutions and procedures so that they are capable of fulfilling the vision at the heart of the Green New Deal. Supporters of the Green New Deal will have much more of this kind of work, thankless as it is, to consider as they continue moving forward.

So, where to begin? The crucial first step is to engage in and begin winning the messaging war over "regulations" and the "administrative state." As noted above, small-government ideologues have succeeded in turning public sentiment against the role administrative agencies play in our democracy and economy. Yet, it is impossible to see any viable path forward for the Green New Deal without public opinion firmly behind these institutions. (If nothing else, it might help to break the downward spiral of low public confidence spurring further agency dysfunction.) To succeed, Green New Deal supporters will need to make the case that administrative agencies and the work they do are a legitimate component of our democracy and that they are essential to promoting the public interest, including by safeguarding the public, mediating relationships between individuals and corporations operating in the marketplace, and promoting social justice.

Supporters of the Green New Deal have never been shy about the boldness and ambition of their project. They'll be the first to tell you that the Green New Deal is not just an environmental policy. Nor is it just about climate change. Instead, it is a mind-bogglingly comprehensive framework for figuring out how we must rebuild our political, economic, and social institutions to pursue justice and fairness, to promote dignity and opportunity for all, and to bring our communities into a thriving and sustainable harmony with the ecosystems in which they are inextricably embedded.

In short, the Green New Deal lays the foundation for an alternative vision of a just society that the progressive community has sorely lacked for the last several decades to compete with the neoliberal model that reduces all aspects of society to the role of a subservient agent acting in the service of an unfettered free market myopically focused on economic growth for economic growth's sake.

A critical part of achieving that vision will be a modern regulatory system that works for everyone. We in the progressive community must do what we can to help make this part of the Green New Deal's vision a reality, too.

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James Goodwin, J.D., M.P.P., is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in May of 2008.

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