WASHINGTON — Hours after Pope Francis appealed to Congress to consider the “common good” and be mindful of the planet’s welfare, lawmakers in the chamber where he spoke moved to do the opposite and bar federal regulators from weighing the costs of climate change.
A provision to do that is tucked into a bill called the Rapid Act, which aims to speed up the regulatory and permitting process “so that citizens are not burdened with regulatory excuses and time delays.”
It primarily targets the National Environmental Policy Act, which for decades has mandated environmental reviews of significant projects on federal lands. The Rapid Act would require regulators to approve new projects in certain time spans, whether a NEPA review has been completed or not.
And the proposed act explicitly bars regulators from considering the common good Francis talked about, in this case in the form of the “social cost of carbon.” Federal reviewers would no longer be allowed to weigh whether a new project would exacerbate climate change, or whether it might add to the costs of natural disasters such as flooding, drought and erosion.
President Barack Obama required regulators to evaluate such costs in a 2013 executive order.
But Republican backers of the bill cast such considerations as onerous and costly to businesses.
“This legislation will help to create millions of high-paying jobs and make government decision-making more efficient and effective,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) on the House floor Thursday, just below where Francis spoke. “Importantly, it will also continue to ensure that the impacts of new projects on the environment can be considered responsibly before permitting decisions are made.”
Democrats begged to differ, saying the Rapid Act is anything but responsible.
“This measure would jeopardize public safety and health by prioritizing project approval over meaningful analysis,” said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). “By giving the proponents of the construction projects greater control over the environmental approval process, this bill is the equivalent of giving Wall Street the authority to write its own regulations for financial responsibility.”
Before that floor debate, politicians on both sides of the aisle had hailed the pope, who invoked the “common good” at least eight times in his speech.
“This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to ‘enter into dialogue with all people about our common home,'” Francis told Congress Thursday morning. “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”
Democrats did not directly link the pontiff’s speech to the measure’s climate provisions, but they did point out the irony of Republicans pushing for a deregulatory bill, rather than a bill that addressed some broader concern, such as funding the government.
“The first legislative day after hearing from the pope … and what are we dealing with?” complained Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who argued that the Rapid Act would actually make regulation harder and more confusing.
Conyers, meanwhile, didn’t mince words. “This is an embarrassment, my friends,” he said.
Thursday’s floor action also proved at least one Democrat wrong. “The pope delivered a message that we in Congress simply cannot. He reminded us of the golden rule and the yardstick by which we will be judged. He reflected back to us the highest moral ideals of our nation. Without lecturing or preaching, he reminded us that our faith and our actions must be in sync,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) had said earlier. “If Congress had a daily reminder of the golden rule, this would be a better country.”
The House has passed similar measures before, but they went nowhere when Democrats controlled the Senate. Now that the GOP holds both chambers, this legislation stands a better chance of advancing. The White House has threatened to veto the bill.
The House is expected to vote on the act Friday.
Ryan Grim contributed reporting.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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