Ozone And The Fundamental Asymmetry Of American Politics

I joked yesterday that left and right reverse positions on the balance of long-term and short-term priorities amidst a recession depending on whether we’re talking about fiscal stimulus or environmental regulation. But John Broder’s account of how Team Obama came to decide to overrule Lisa Jackson and the EPA on smog regulations is a reminder that there’s a fundamental asymmetry in the American political system. A variety of considerations went into the president’s call on this, but they basically boil down to the fact that the business lobby really didn’t want to see the new stricter rule implemented. So even though environmentalists did want it implemented, Obama chose not to implement it.

You simply cannot imagine the reverse scenario playing out in a Republican White House. It’s inconceivable that environmental groups would win an internal debate in a Republican administration. Could environmental groups win a policy fight with a Republican administration by exercising power in congress and the courts? Sure. But there’s no way Andy Card would have ever reversed course on a Bush campaign pledge in response to plaintive phone calls from the Sierra Club.

Jon Chait’s classic article on this dynamic is lost to the sands of the internet, but you can get a taste of his thinking here. A friend of mind in political science explained it to me this way. American democracy is characterized by “interest group pluralism.” But business has a “privileged position” in the pluralist dynamic. It’s perfectly conceivable for corporate managers and business lobbyists to dream of a world in which there are no labor unions or environmental pressure groups. But neither the AFL-CIO nor the Sierra Club nor anyone else to the right of Lenin is actually prepared to wage a root-and-branch war against the existence of large and powerful business enterprises in the United States. In fact, progressives are counting on the existence of such enterprises every bit as much as conservatives are. The upshot is to create an imbalance in the interest group bargaining process. Business always has a seat at the table and even the most left-wing members of congress shill for firms located in their districts. Countervailing forces not only sometimes lose the argument (as they did with Obama and smog) but oftentimes find themselves locked out of the room entirely.