California Is Poised To Lead The Way In The Battle Against Federal Power
From the moment Donald Trump announced his campaign, promising to deport every illegal immigrant, roll back climate progress, and dismantle the current healthcare system, Californians knew they would need to suit up. With a population of just under 40 million, the Golden State stood to be disproportionately affected by the then-candidate’s proposed policies. Because the state houses 1 in every 10 Americans, the enactment of reckless, ill-advised legislation in California would have the potential to harm more citizens than anywhere else in the country.
As a politically liberal, financially sound state with heavy economic leverage, the spotlight has been turned on California as a key state in the resistance efforts against federal overreach. Both Governor Jerry Brown and California Senate Leader Kevin de Léon have issued statements declaring the state’s intention to stand up against the President’s agenda. In early January, Democratic leaders of the state legislature hired former U.S. Atty. Gen Eric Holder for legal counsel against the current federal administration. It is clear that California is bracing for a fight against the federal government the likes of which have not been seen in recent time — especially from a historically blue state.
However, the battleground that California seems to be entering is taking a surprising form. While immigration and health care are two areas in which California stands to lose the most if the Trump administration follows through on its promises, environmental regulations might be California’s key in learning how to invoke states’ rights for the greater good.
The Emissions Battle
For over the last 40 years, California has had legal authority to enact automotive air pollution standards that are stricter than federal law. The Clean Air Act of 1970 gave the state the right to request waivers allowing such standards, because state pollution laws were in place before federal standards existed.
These waivers have faced controversy multiple times in the past few decades. The law was challenged by the Bush administration in 2004, and by auto dealers in 2009. However, in 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld California’s right to set its own auto emissions standards — to the chagrin of the entire automotive industry.
See — California comprises the largest auto market in the entire country. Because of the state’s high population and heavy economic output, the emissions standards that it sets have huge sway over the market in general. Twelve other states, including New York and Washington, D.C., have adopted California’s standards.
These twelve states and California combined make up one third of the auto industry. Considering most auto dealers don’t want to sell one set of cars for a third of the country and a different set for the remaining states, most of the automotive industry complies with California’s strict emissions standards — even though they are not required to, according to federal law.
In the recent weeks, President Trump has proved, once again, that he favors industry over environmental concern and promised to roll back these waivers. He has cited the easing of such regulations as necessary to stimulate automotive manufacturing. However, California has held fast in its plans to push for stricter standards, voting in late March to maintain current laws, regardless of the President’s requests.
This is one of the loudest, and most concise example of the state’s agenda to push back against the Trump administration. While the White House and the E.P.A. have not commented on California’s decision as of yet, any further step in their current direction of loosening regulations is sure to force the state to sue.
A Democratic Strategy
It is unlikely that the Trump administration will push this battle any further. Refusing to grant California its waiver would immediately necessitate legal action, which would most likely rule in favor of the state, given the precedent that has already been set.
However, the importance of California’s actions cannot be overstated. In the extremely un-sexy topic of auto pollution, the Golden State has unearthed a pathway for fellow blue states to follow over the upcoming years. While the rallying cry of states’s rights has generally been reserved for the Republican party, it is time for progressives to understand it’s value.
Through the emissions battle, two specific doors have opened up to California by which to resist reckless federal policies — legislation and litigation.
California has a large fiscal imprint on the rest of the country. It pays nearly $350 million in federal taxes every year, and has the fastest economic growth of any other state. By implementing legislation like its emissions standards, California has great sway over the states that do business with it. In an extremely oversimplified explanation, California has the economic power to influence the standards that its associates uphold. Essentially, the state can say, do business with us our way, or not at all.
This way of thinking has rarely been used in progressive politics, as the Democratic party is usually a strong proponent of deferring to responsible federal power. However, when federal power is used inappropriately, and when policies are enacted that could harm citizens, it is the state government’s responsibility to protect its electors, party politics be damned.
Litigation, on the other hand, has already proven to be a useful tool against the Trump administration — as seen in regards to the President’s travel ban. The judicial system exists as a relatively unbiased arm of the federal government — one which blue states would do well to take full advantage of in the near future.
If the emissions battle does progress further in California, it would open the gates for intense legal action. With Eric Holder on retainer, the state is in a prime position for any legal battles — a situation which the Trump administration will probably attempt to avoid. The lawsuit playing card, while morally ambiguous, provides great leverage in political battles — and leverage is a priceless currency in the current political climate.
The Blue Firewall
In December, California’s then incoming Atty. Gen Xavier Becerra taunted the President,
“If you want to take on a forward-leaning state that is prepared to defend its rights and interests, then come at us.”
California has long been heralded as a bastion of progressivism and easy living. While the phrase coastal bubble was thrown at it during the 2016 election, it houses more American citizens than anywhere else in the country. These citizens have seen a marked increase in quality of life as a result of a budgetary surplus, flourishing economy, expanded social security, and a booming job market.
The economic and political power that California holds has never been more important. When those in federal power turn their back on the citizens of this country, powerful states must step up. California can lead the charge against federal overreach, and it can help its fellow states learn how to do the same.
As Jerry Brown told his constituents in his 2017 State of the State Address,
“California is not turning back. Not now, not ever.”
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