Will Congress choose cleaner air, again?

The Clean Air Act of 1970, and a subsequent 1990 amendment to it, have been the key tools used by President Obama to shape his environmental legacy.

Some legal experts call the 44-year-old clean air legislation the most powerful environment law in the world.

Unable to move his clean air legislation through a stalemated Congress, Obama has turned to the law frequently and successfully throughout his presidency.

The latest presidential move came the day before Thanksgiving, when the Obama administration announced a regulation to reduce industrial emissions of ozone, a smog-causing pollutant linked to asthma, heart disease and premature deaths.

The president is often criticized for using his executive powers to advance his domestic and foreign policy agendas without support from Congress. But when it comes to crafting regulations that improve air quality and save lives, the president has a public health imperative to act. And it appears he is well within his legal right to do so, using the 1970 Clean Air Act for purposes its authors intended.

In fact, it’s a good thing he had the landmark environmental legislation at his disposal: Without it, congressional gridlock would have prevented any major environmental legislation from reaching his desk.

It’s still possible that the Supreme Court could overturn much of the president’s environmental actions, but the high court has upheld Clean Air Act initiatives by Obama on three occasions.

A bipartisan agreement gave birth to the Clean Air Act in 1970, the same year lawmakers created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They gave EPA considerable clout to protect the nation’s air, land and water from pollution.

The Clean Air Act passed the Senate on a 73-0 vote and it was quickly signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon. In 1990, another Republican president, George W. Bush, approved amendments to the act – approved by 89 senators – strengthening EPA’s authority to issue anti-pollution rules and regulations.

Among the senators signing off on EPA’s expanded authority was Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. But now he’s singing a vastly different tune. He insists that ozone regulations and others aimed at curbing emissions are too costly to industry and kill jobs.

McConnell and his allies have vowed to block or overturn proposed rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. The fate of the coal industry and the coal-fired power plants hang in the balance.

On the public health side of the coin, reduced emissions save lives. EPA estimates that the ozone regulation alone could prevent 320,000 – to – 960,000 asthma attacks in children by 2025, and as many as 4,300 premature deaths.

Billions of dollars in avoided health care costs and worker sick days could be saved if the new rules go into effect.

We wish McConnell would change course, and reissue the statement he made in 1990 when he voted for EPA regulatory authority. He said: “I had to choose between cleaner air and the status quo. I chose cleaner air.”