Giving away a potential bargaining chip

There are all kinds of reasons this seems like an awful mistake, but there’s one angle in particular that I’m having trouble wrapping my head around.

President Obama … rejected a proposed rule from the Environmental Protection Agency [yesterday morning] that would have significantly reduced emissions of smog-causing chemicals, saying that it would impose too severe a burden on industry and local governments at a time of economic distress.

Business groups and Republicans in Congress had complained that meeting the new standard, which governs emissions of so-called ground-level ozone, would cost billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs. […]

The E.P.A., following the recommendation of its scientific advisers, had proposed lowering the so-called ozone standard of 75 parts per billion, set at the end of the Bush administration, to a stricter standard of 60 to 70 parts per billion. The change would have thrown hundreds of American counties out of compliance with the Clean Air Act and required a major enforcement effort by state and local officials, as well as new emissions controls at industries across the country.

I’m trying to imagine this from the White House’s perspective. Let’s say top officials were convinced by business interests that the smog rules really would undermine short-term job growth. There are many with more familiarity with environmental policy who can speak to this with more authority than I can, but for the sake of conversation, let’s assume the White House was genuinely convinced that these stricter ozone standards would be bad for the economy right now.

Let’s also say that the White House has become obsessed with looking for ways — any ways — to give the job market a boost, and practically all other considerations have been deemed suspect, at least for now. If I were drawing up a list of considerations that probably take precedence over unemployment, I’d probably put “the ability to breathe clean air” pretty close to the top, but again, for the sake of conversation, let’s assume the West Wing’s focus on jobs has become all-consuming.

Even if we make these assumptions, the policy still has a dramatic, strategic flaw.

President Obama is going to deliver a big speech on the economy on Thursday, and in the weeks that follow, there will presumably be at least some talks between Democrats and Republicans about job-creating ideas. Democratic leaders, in both the White House and Congress, will be pushing for things like infrastructure investments, and Republicans will be pushing for measures like weakening/eliminating environmental regulations.

With this in mind, even if West Wing officials sincerely believed these ozone standards would be bad the job market, why not keep this realization close to their chest, and then trade it to Republicans in exchange for something else? Why not use the rules as a bargaining chip?

Yesterday, GOP leaders were only too pleased to applaud the White House’s decision (which, as a rule, reinforces the notion that the policy move was dreadful). But I suspect Republicans were pleased, not only because of the weaker environmental standard, but also because they didn’t have to give up anything in return.

Environmental advocates have vowed to challenge the new standard in court. I’ll keep you posted on their progress.