“This is a Fight and We Need a Leader”: Environmental Champion Leon Billings Slams Obama’s Ozone Retreat

Leon Billings: I have been silent long enough. It is time to comment on this Administration.  It is time to unload. I have maintained silence at least in part because of the cacophony of criticism from the far right dominated GOP.

Many people who care deeply about both clean air and job creation have been stunned by President Obama’s cynical decision to do less on ozone pollution than George W. Bush proposed.

One of the country’s long-time environmental champions, Leon Billings, has had enough.  He sent around a scathing, must-read “political update” yesterday and gave me permission to repost it.

Billings deserves attention.  From 1966 to 1978, he was staff director of the Senate Environmental Pollution Subcommittee, and had primary staff responsibility for writing some of our most important environmental laws, including the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.  He was chief of staff to Edmund Muskie when Muskie was Senator and Secretary of State.  He served as Executive Director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 1982 cycle and served 12 years in the Maryland legislature.

Here’s Billings has to say:




I have been silent long enough. It is time to comment on this Administration.  It is time to unload. I have maintained silence at least in part because of the cacophony of criticism from the far right dominated GOP.

I was silent on the deal that extended the Bush tax cuts because I believe Obama felt he had to make a deal to extend unemployment benefits and payroll tax cuts for this year.

I was silent the deficit deal this summer because, in this particular game of chicken, the GOP was clearly prepared to endanger the nation’s solvency to capture a political point. And, I believed that the Sword of Damocles deal requiring equal cuts in non-entitlement programs and defense was, at least, a strong message.

I deflected the criticism of labor, African Americans, and the Hispanic community because I thought their posture seemed to ignore the depths of economic distress Obama had inherited.

I was flummoxed when Obama did not yet repeatedly berate the GOP for their effort to defeat and discredit his health care plan by suggesting that it threatened   Medicare.  He even let Paul Ryan’s “end Medicare as we know it” pass into history with minimum rather than repeated Presidential comment.

But now the President has decided to violate the law and not move forward with the release of new, peer reviewed, scientifically established standards for clean air.  These standards, required as a result of a proposal by Richard M. Nixon, are the underpinning of the nation’s clean air effort.  Even the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, written brilliantly by Justice Antonin Scalia, held that these health based air quality standards were to be based on science, not economics.

So what does this President do:  he says that economics prevent him from stating a scientifically proven fact that certain exposure to smog is unhealthy and needs to be reduced.

This is the same President who has fulminated against corporate America sitting on huge piles of cash and not putting America back to work.  This is the same President who wants to invest huge amounts of public works funds in bridges, highways, and transit.  And yet this same President won’t tell corporate America and particularly oil companies, utilities, and refineries that they have to clean up their dirty air.

Thousands of jobs would be created if new air pollution standards would force the investment the detractors of these standards say would be required.  Manufacturing and installing the needed pollution control equipment would be public works with a public health purpose.

No one is saying that these rules shouldn’t be implemented.  Our President is just saying “don’t spend the money now.  Wait until things get better.”  Well, Mr. President, things will only get better if new jobs are created.  You have run out of ways to stimulate the economy with Federal dollars because the GOP House of Representatives won’t let you spend any more money.  You can’t get a new tax policy through to generate new revenue because these same GOP folks just say no.

But then you are given a golden opportunity to have a broad based victory.  You could have received accolades from a constituency that will be vital if you are to have activist support next year: the environmentalists.  You could have received accolades from organized labor because working people would build and install the pollution control equipment.  You would have received the accolades of the public health community because you would have put health above the misplaced perception of politics of whoever told you to withdraw these rules.  And you would not have violated the law.

So, lets do a score card here: Satisfied constituents: big polluters.  Dissatisfied constituents: people who want manufacturing and construction jobs installing pollution control equipment; pulmonary and public health providers who want healthy air; environmental advocates who want a President who implements the law; and, of course, those Americans who think the President ought to obey the law.

It is clear to almost everyone I know that President Obama and his advisors have determined that we all don’t have any place to go a year from now.  They believe that any of the GOP nominees would be completely unacceptable to all the activists who care about progressive public policy.  And, as misguided as your policy responses are, they are right.  None of us is going to vote for a right wing fanatic and there is only one GOP candidate who doesn’t seem to fit that mold.  So Obama’s political advisers think we are stuck.

BUT! And this is a very BIG BUT!  We are going to only be as enthusiastic as the GOP nominee causes us to be.  We are not going to be in the neighborhoods or at the polling place as we were in 2008 when Obama was seen as “change we could believe in” which meant something very different than George Bush. So, maybe the GOP will nominate someone so offensive that our enthusiasm is generated.

Or, the President can try to reestablish a relationship with those of us who care about the future of our country, who firmly believes in separation of church and state, who believe the national government has an activist role to balance the inequities in our society and who are willing to pay their fare share to that end.  BUT HE BETTER GET ON THE STICK AND QUIT PRETENDING TO BE A NON COMBATANT, TAKE OFF HIS RED CROSS ARM BAND AND PICK UP A WEAPON.  This is a fight and we need a leader.

— Leon G. Billings was also Chair of the Environment Committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures for the 2001-2002 NCSL conference year.  In 1995 he co-founded the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, a group of state legislators committed to progressive federal and state environmental policies.

22 Responses to “This is a Fight and We Need a Leader”: Environmental Champion Leon Billings Slams Obama’s Ozone Retreat

  1. Stewart Hardison says:

    I applaud and thank Leon Billings for his lifelong commitment to the environmental cause. I also agree with him about Obama.

    However, I deeply regret Mr. Billings’ use of the phrase, “…PICK UP A WEAPON.” Yes, we do need a leader. But we do not need this kind of rhetoric, whether it’s from the right, left or middle.

  2. We are seeing long-time loyal Republicans and Democrats attacking the dangerous messaging and policies of their OWN parties these days.

    To me the primary underlying thread is the political elevation of corporate and big money interests above those of the common good.

    Everyone should write a “thank you” card to the members of the Supreme Court that voted to remove all limits on how much cash the corporations can shovel into politicians’ pockets.

    As Vice President Al Gore pointed out recently, there are 4 pro-climate-pollution lobbyists in DC for each member of Congress. And tar sands corporations hired Hillary Clinton’s ex-campaign honcho and gave him hundreds of millions of dollars to get Hillary to give the big thumbs up to Keystone XL. Which she did.

    Game over indeed.

  3. Paul Magnus says:

    THis decision strikes me as direct advice from Clinton….

  4. Slightly OT. Joe, here is a link to a very heartening show of support for climate action from an unlikely quarter — Big Ag societies’ position statement on climate:


    Three agricultural societies recently published a position statement on climate change. The American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America released a statement in May of 2011….The position statement begins, “A comprehensive body of scientific evidence indicates beyond reasonable doubt that global climate change is now occurring and that its manifestations threaten the stability of societies as well as natural and managed ecosystems. Increases in ambient temperatures and changes in related processes are directly linked to rising anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere.” It goes on to state that “The potential related impacts of climate change on the ability of agricultural systems, which include soil and water resources, to provide food, feed,fiber, and fuel, and maintenance of ecosystem services … as well as the integrity of the environment, are major concerns.” Moreover,the report states that crop production will face increasing challenges linked to climate change.

    And check out the great list of concurring organizations at the bottom.

    When Dovers Cattle News (“America’s Beef Business Source”) publishes an article like this, you can’t help but feel a ray of hope.

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    I appreciate the facts and concerns expressed in this post, and I appreciate the post itself and the author’s views.

    But I think that what the author implies, as a bottom line, is actually insufficient and unproductive. Here’s what I mean:

    Even well-informed folks who are deeply distressed at the President’s choices — even those who are highly frustrated — even those who know that the President’s actions are grossly insufficient — even those who understand that the President has been breaking promises to those who voted for him — even those who have plenty of evidence to see how the President thinks, and don’t like what they see — even most of those people cannot seem to muster enough wisdom and backbone to do anything other than convey to the President that he’ll have less enthusiastic support among his supporters if he doesn’t get his act together and start to make good decisions.

    Gimme a break. “Mr. President, your supporters (who don’t have anywhere else to go) will be less enthusiastic in their support if you (for example) approve the Keystone XL pipeline.” Gimme a break.

    Do we not understand, yet, how the President and his political advisers think?

    I’d like the President to hear this and know this: No more unconditional votes from me. Actions speak louder than words, and I’m not afraid to be among the growing numbers of people who will either vote for a third party or not vote at all, until the Dems learn the lesson that being the (slightly) lesser of two evils is not sufficient.

    So here’s the deal: If the President wants my vote this coming election, he must disapprove Keystone XL. If he approves Keystone XL, I won’t vote for him. Period. I hope he hears this loud and clear. And I hope that many, many, many people adopt the same stance and let it be known.

    When we act like we’ll vote for Obama no matter what he does, and when we let Obama and his advisers assume that they have us in the bag, and when the most serious consequence we can mention to Obama is that people who support him will be less enthusiastic in their support, we’ll get what we “deserve”: nothin.

    Many, many, many more votes will be lost (including mine!) than President Obama and his advisers think, if he approves Keystone XL and doesn’t step up to the plate on other vital issues, as he promised he’d do. I’ve had it — and am willing to say so.

    I would like to see and hear more people take the stance that they won’t vote for Obama if he approves Keystone XL. Bill McKibben? Joe? James Hansen? Al Gore? Which of you will take that stance? I understand that it’s a tough question and calls for a difficult decision. But if WE don’t start making difficult decisions, and taking tough stances, how can we possibly expect others to do so?

    I’m not going to give away my vote. I’m not going to vote for X just because it’s a slightly lesser evil than Y. I’m not going to be part of continuing to teach politicians that they can do whatever they want and still get away with it. No way. If Obama approves of Keystone XL, I’m not voting for him. Period.


  6. George Ennis says:

    It’s simply not worth the effort anymore to even try and get this President to support progressive causes of any kind. He is quite happy fulminating against the caprices of the GOP and then implementing whatever program they want.

    Better to vote for the Green Party or any independent candidate on the ballot then this President. I realize this probably means the GOP wins but how do progressives break the habit of the Democratic Party that they can hold the progressive vote by being slightly less right wing then the GOP. There has to be a price that a leader party has to pay when it repudiates the core principles of supporters who elected them.

  7. Sasparilla says:

    Excellent piece by Mr. Billings.

    Polls are now showing a generic GOP nominee beating the President. I sure hope we can keep the Senate.

  8. Joe Romm says:

    Thanks for this. I will put this on the list of things to post about.

  9. John Earl says:

    Just wait until he approves the Tar Sands deal!

  10. Robert E. Huie says:

    We need a “Draft Al Gore” movement for the Democratic nomination.

  11. denim says:

    Too bad Mr. Billings was not on the Democratic ticket in 2008. He would have my vote. Just think how much more Obama can sell out in the next 4 years. Better a Republican idiot and a Democratic Congress than Obama in the White House.

  12. Cynthia says:

    Even if he does try to stop the tar sands deal, I may not vote for him again. Frankly, I’m sick of his middle- of- the- road game. I want a REAL leader. If he can’t step up to the plate, why waste more time on him?

  13. Wes Rolley says:

    I am with you, Jeff. There is a mighty struggle going on, and it is just not at the presidential level In our California, Democrats have slipped an amendment into Assembly Bill 1413 that would strip away the right to even write in a protest vote for state legislature or Congress. They have made it clear that this is a battle between Republicans and Democrats and the rest of us just don’t even count. There is no longer any thought of what is good for this country, it is all just another skirmish and nothing counts except winning.

    I will continue to vote for a 3rd Party until they also take that away.

  14. I’m with you Jeff.

    For me the bottom line for my vote is whether Obama steps up to define and defend the basic principle that climate pollution is a serious threat to the general welfare of Americans. Climate pollution must be ramped down and the US government has to be an active participant in driving this change to safer energy.

    If Obama says that it is in our “National Interest” to turn the dirty and massive tar sands carbon bomb into a replacement for oil…then I’m voting for someone else.

    I really can’t think of a worse message for our future than Obama saying it is essential to develop coal and unconventional carbon deposits. No way he can undo that damage in the next 4 years even if he wanted to. Under such an Obama National Interest Doctrine there is no crumb of carbon fuel dirty enough that developed nations and multi-national corporations won’t feel green-lighted exploit, sell and burn.

  15. Mark Shapiro says:

    While sharing everyone’s frustration, let us never forget who the real opponents are. You read some of their names on this site quite often: Murdoch, Koch, Tillerson (Exxon’s CEO), and Blankenship (former Massey’s CEO).

    These people are powerful beyond belief. I doubt that even THEY know all the horrible tactics used on their behalf. They hire lobbyists, contractors, PR and security firms who work in the shadows. They reward people who tap the phones of murdered girls. They remove mountains.

    I choose to stay focused on them, whatever retreats and errors Obama makes.

  16. John McCormick says:

    Wes, we are at the point people of London experienced when German planes were bombing them and their children.

    We need a Churchhill. He/she is out there but do we have the smarts and the resources to encourage that person to enter the presidential race, back that person and save us from the clutches of the Koch (AK terrorist) extremists. I doubt we do.

    We are essentially bitchers and not doers.

    Or, will the perry crzies take us down and we’ll be done with it. Fatalists??? Open question.

    John McCormick

  17. Solar Jim says:

    Obama seems to understand how western, unregulated, crony capitalism, which operates on resource destruction, works and he has joined in with both feet. As one of his voters, I now find it impossible to keep track of all the ways he is selling out the American public to anti-American, globalized corporatism. This is so whether for genetic seed corporations, investment banks (oxymoron), militarism for profit, atomic power, coal, petroleum and hydrofracked gas, tar from destroyed boreal forests, etc.

    He seems to be enjoying the benefits of his White House, which is actually our White House. That is, until the coming floods.

    I wish revolving political doors to paradigms of finance could, at least, generate some clean power, as the nation dissolves from it’s foundations.

  18. John McCormick says:

    What!!! Draft a sex poodle to run for the highest office in the greatest democrcy??? in the world.

  19. Brooks Bridges says:

    I share everyone’s frustration with Obama. I want to scream at times. But I can’t forget Bush’s two $trillion wars, $trillion tax cuts to the rich, failure to regulate the financial industry, and suppression of the coming disasters due to climate change. I’ve heard on this site comments that electing Gore would have made no real difference. That basically says he would have done all of the above. Absurd!

    I also can’t forget the recent post on this blog: Must-Read Tell All: “Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult”

    These people are ideologically obsessed and are the realities we will have to deal with if Obama loses.

    I have YET to hear from anyone on this blog, a REALISTIC Democrat to propose as an alternative to Obama. I am sick of purist drivel saying they won’t vote for Obama. We will NOT get a third party going barring a revolution and I don’t hear anyone here offering lives, fortunes, sacred honor, etc., for such a revolution. So anyone electable MUST be able to work with and within the present government. That means WE must create the conditions to force Obama do what’s right or find an ELECTABLE candidate who will.

    I’d like to hear concrete suggestions for alternatives to Obama. I keep asking and no one ever responds. Why not?

  20. stewart hardison says:

    Brooks, here’s a possible candidate for consideration: Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York. He recently gave $50 million of his own foundation money to the Sierra Club, earmarked to help them fight the greenwash from “clean coal” lobby. Bloomberg is an Independent. He’s a business titan who totally gets global warming. He’s also politically smart. He has considered running as an Independent, but only if he can win. Personally, I think Bloomberg could win the wide middle that could deliver the White House. He’s smart enough, experienced enough and has the bucks enough to fund the campaign himself.

  21. Mark says:

    “Do we not understand, yet, how the President and his political advisers think?”

    could not be more obvious could it?

    the worst of it is, I don’t think these people care if they are elected to a second term. particularly Obama.

    they simply go through the revolving door, to lobbying, and executive jobs, that pay them far more than they make “representing the people that elected them”

    I read that one former Prime minster of Britain, is making in the area of twenty million dollars a year.

    so, who do they please?

    voting, not voting, is not going to do it I’m afraid.

  22. Brooks Bridges says:

    Thank you. I agree Bloomberg would be an excellent choice for president. I just don’t understand how it can happen.

    I’ll put my effort and money into getting progressives into House and Senate.

    And I’d still like to see a million person march in DC for climate change action.