Back in 1970, during, ironically enough, President Richard Nixon's administration, Congress created a sort of Pandora's Box. It was the law establishing the Environmental Protection Agency.
In Greek mythology, Pandora's Box contained all the evils of the world. Pandora was warned not to open it, but curiosity prompted her to do so. She tried to close it, but it was too late.
Now, realizing what their predecessors did was a mistake, some members of Congress are attempting to slow down the EPA. But it's too late for half-measures such as that.
To be fair, the EPA and U.S. industries have accomplished much good. Our air, water and soil are much cleaner than in 1970. Anyone who breathed our air and/or swam in the Ohio River back then understands that.
Out of a sense of political self-preservation, Congress went too far in 1970. Lawmakers understood the need for strict new pollution regulations - but they didn't want to lose votes by approving individual laws to mandate them. So they gave the EPA sweeping authority to, in effect, write its own laws.
Americans are paying for that now, because President Barack Obama has launched what some previous EPA administrators would have liked to have done, but didn't because their presidents didn't support the idea (or were afraid of the political ramifications). Obama is using the EPA in an outright war on the coal industry. It is a multi-pronged effort, as news stories, editorials in this newspaper and this column have detailed during the past couple of years.
You may recall that Congress refused to go along with Obama's "cap and trade" legislation. Obama reacted by telling lawmakers, in essence, that he was only being courteous to them to ask for "cap and trade" in the first place. The EPA then proceeded to mandate similar restrictions on its own authority.
Think about that: Obama and EPA officials believe they have the power to tell the elected representatives of the people that what they do doesn't matter.
Some members of Congress, including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., want to come down hard on the EPA. The war against coal is irrational, they point out.
Others, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., favor a more limited approach. A bill Rockefeller has sponsored would suspend the EPA's authority to enforce some anti-coal rules - but only for two years. The measure, introduced in January 2011, has several co-sponsors (including Manchin, who signed on because at least Rockefeller's bill is something).
Unfortunately, it's too little, too late.
Power companies already are responding to the EPA by announcing plans to close dozens of coal-fired generating stations. They may be replaced with natural gas generators, at substantially higher cost to tens of millions of consumers.
Were you a utility executive, how would you respond to a two-year moratorium? You'd recognize that after 24 months had passed, the EPA would be knocking on your door again. You'd proceed with plans to scrap coal-fired generating capacity.
Apparently, the 1970 approach - granting an executive branch agency rule-making autonomy so members of Congress have plausible deniability when constituents protest heavy-handed government - has some appeal. During the past couple of decades, under both Republican and Democrat presidents, it's been done again several times. The failed "No Child Left Behind" education law is an example. So is the national health care statute.
So blatant have been the infringements on Americans' liberty that the courts occasionally step in. "Obamacare" may be overruled by the Supreme Court. And the EPA has been slapped down by a few federal judges.
But until and unless Congress takes back its authority by eliminating some of the executive branch's rule-making power - by nailing Pandora's Box shut - the abuses will continue.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org