Clean Ports Act — Dead on Arrival (in the Senate)

An impressive group of labor, economic development, and environmental groups is pushing to give more control to states and localities. How many Republicans will support this effort to tame the federal government? Do I have to ask?

An impressive coalition of environmental groups, labor organizations, local governments, and economic development agencies have teamed up to sponsor the Clean Ports Act of 2010, introduced on July 29th by Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York (who looks something like a cube but is an effective and conscientious legislator), and co-sponsored by 67 members of Congress.  As I read it, the Act would essentially allow state and local governments to set air quality standards for vehicles going in and out of ports — authority that a federal district judge ruled last April was pre-empted by federal law.

I just learned about this through an e-mail from the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an impressive economic development organization based in this city.  Lots of folks have trumpeted the legislation: LAANE, the Sierra Club, and the Teamsters, just to name a few.  It’s not often that you can get Carl Pope and Jimmy Hoffa to write on op-ed together, but they did, strongly endorsing the Act.

Why are the Teamsters suddenly so gung-ho about environmental regulation?  The issue is two-fold: 1) whether local government such as Los Angeles can prevent non-union trucks from using its port; and 2) whether local governments can institute container fees to pay for cleaner trucks.  If local governments had this authority, then many of them would demand unionization and institute the fees.

Which is why there’s no way it passes.  The auto and trucking interests will fight this thing, it will pass the House, and get filibustered in the Senate.  You know those Republicans and Tea Partiers who love talking about local control and the Tenth Amendment?  That only happens when it’s about providing health care to people.  When it’s about the trucking industry, suddenly they start slobbering over Alexander Hamilton.

I’m somewhat skeptical that anyone is really principled about pre-emption and state control (although there are a few exceptions).  But conservatives make this argument more often: they insist that it’s not about substance, you understand, just about the federal Leviathan.  They thus claim to enforce constitutional punctiliousness (unless it’s about repealing the Fourteenth Amendment).  They’ll be hoisted on their petard here, but the inability to feel shame is a great weapon in politics, and in the absense of filibuster reform, they’ll get away with it.  Then folks (among them maybe a lot of truck drivers) will vote against the Democrats because “they didn’t get anything done.”  Ah, voters….

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

4 thoughts on “Clean Ports Act — Dead on Arrival (in the Senate)”

  1. This isn't an argument about pre-emption and state control. It isn't as if the Democrats in Congress are talking about allowing state regulation of the trucking industry more generally, so that each state can try to favor itself in commerce over the others. No, what we see is that there's a concerted effort by left-wing groups to try to engineer a handout to others on the left. There's no high principle at issue here, only the typical crony capitalism of the Obama era. Corruption with a green face?

    As for the policy itself, it really is as bad as it looks. A completely unnecessary attempt to help the unions, because they help elect Democrats too. So we'll raise costs on everyone and drive a few small trucking operators out of business. Which is fine, I suppose. But don't pretend it's anything but the basest and ugliest sort of politics permitted by our constitution.

  2. Raise your hand if you had this problem in your negotiation theory class.

    Raise your other hand if you realized one of the players' maximal victory conditions was to sabotage any deal.

  3. What "auto interests" are opposed to a program that would allow government to force people to buy new vehicles. Could that be your principled opposition?!?

  4. I love that will all the political focus on improving test scores nobody seems to understand that health is a major contributor to low performance in school. Kids who live near the ports miss significantly more school because they get asthma attacks, pneumonia, and colds that don't seem to go away, all caused or irritated by poor air quality. When you miss that much school early on, it's much harder to catch up and ever perform well academically.

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