Why you should care

If you surf the Web, pay energy bills or plan to visit the Grand Canyon soon, then decisions being made in Washington in the coming months will affect you.

Washington, D.C., is where common sense goes to die — or at least that seems to be the sentiment held by many Americans these days.

And that’s fair enough. It’s hard to pinpoint anything leaders in our federal government are doing to address the daunting challenges facing the country — everything from stagnant job growth to crumbling infrastructure to rising terrorist activity in the Middle East and Africa.

But contrary to conventional wisdom on Washington’s incurably gridlocked process, the federal government is not entirely feckless. Even as politicians shift into partisan overdrive ahead of nationwide elections in November, policymakers in Congress and the executive branch are preparing laws and regulations to enact this year that could have a real effect on our daily lives. OZY takes stock of a few of the most significant measures poised to defy the reputation for D.C. dysfunction.

Cap-and-Trade: Back from the Dead

It’s been four years since the Senate killed cap-and-trade legislation. Now President Obama is taking action on his own, with a new plan to reduce America’s carbon emissions. The controversial move, unveiled today, is bound to become fodder for the 2014 campaign trail.

The new proposal, released by the Environmental Protection Agency, would create a sort of small-scale version of the cap-and-trade system that Congress failed to pass, limiting carbon emissions from existing power plants on a state-by-state basis. According to the EPA’s announcement Monday morning, the “Clean Power Plan” will ”cut carbon emission from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide” by 2030. According to the Washington Post, the regulations, when finalized next June, are likely to “spur regional carbon-trading programs on the East and West Coasts.”

Lawsuits are likely and could delay the implementation of the new requirements. But the administration appears determined to plough ahead with this and other elements of the president’s “Climate Action Plan” launched last year.

A Reprieve for Illegal Immigrants

Senate Democrats have given their House counterparts a July 31 deadline to pass an immigration bill before they throw their weight behind unilateral White House action. That’s something the president himself is looking into — he tasked his new Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in March with reviewing the administration’s immigration enforcement policies (read: deportations). And Democrats sound confident that unless House Republicans take action in the next six weeks, we’ll see President Obama announce significant changes, likely expanding the range of illegal immigrants who can avoid deportation under a 2012 program.Immigration is another policy area where the Obama administration is preparing to step in because Congress has failed to act. There were some small glimmers of hope early on in 2014 politicians might come together on comprehensive reform, but those have been all but dashed. The prospects, however, are rising for some smaller White House measures that offer a respite to certain classes of illegal immigrants.

Man in purple shirt holds up an anti-deportation poster.

March for Immigration Reform and International Workers’ Day at City Hall in San Jose, California, on May 1, 2014

Playing Internet Traffic Cop

Would the threat of such a politically charged move just before election day be enough to motivate Republican leaders to do something on immigration, perhaps hold a vote on the ENLIST Act, a GOP bill granting permanent residency to illegal immigrants who enlist in the military? It’s unclear if they would want to inflame the anti-illegal-immigration wing of the party with such a move. But either way, we’re likely to see some action before November, with an eye toward Hispanic voters not just in 2014, but in 2016, as well.

“Net neutrality” is one of those terms that few people understand but affects almost all of us. The principal behind it is that no particular type of data gets priority over any other data as it all speeds across the Web. But a new proposal released earlier this month by the Federal Communications Commission opens the door to exactly that type of “prioritization” — allowing Comcast to charge more for streaming, say, Netflix than NBC (which it owns).

Critics say that would kill the open Internet as we know it, creating a pay-to-play system in which big corporations can buy faster speeds for their services online. But FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler refuted that in a congressional hearing on May 21, saying the commission could still block most Internet “fast lanes.” We’re now in the midst of a 60-day window for stakeholders to weigh in before the FCC issues a draft of the regulation. Wheeler has pledged to finalize the new rules by the end of the year. Expect plenty of heated debate in the interim, pitting Internet providers like Verizon and Comcast against Web-based titans like Google and Amazon, with both sectors’ future business models at stake.

Funding the Government

In other words, it’s not entirely fair to say nothing is happening in Washington these days. D.C.’s getting moving on some things, though still not as much or as fast as the rest of America would like.So far, staffers say they’re on track — they’ve already kicked off the legislative process and have until September 30 (the end of the fiscal year) to finalize a bill. Even if they have to lump some of the spending bills together, meeting that deadline will be a major accomplishment, one that helps every branch of government better budget going forward. And as the government shutdown last year proved, there’s a whole lot of federally funded programs we count on that we don’t even think about. Family vacation to a national park, anyone? Yes, we know this is more or less the most basic task on Congress’ docket each year, but gosh darn it if lawmakers haven’t managed to foul even that up lately. Actually, it’s more than just lately: Since 1952, there have been only four years that Congress passed all its spending bills one by one and on time, the Congressional Research Service reports, a process known as “regular order.” So the fact that leaders in both the House and Senate have committed to trying to do just that — after reaching a budget deal last winter setting the topline spending numbers — is a big deal.

Updated June 2, 2014 to reflect details of EPA announcement.

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