Why you should care

Our privacy, energy prices and roads are all up for grabs in 2015.

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If the past couple of months are any indication, President Barack Obama intends to go out with a bang. Despite the fact that — or probably because — his party was routed in the midterm elections in the fall, the president seems to be throwing down gauntlet after gauntlet. Immigration. Cuba. Net neutrality.

The looming question, of course, is how the Republican-controlled Congress will respond in January and beyond. At his final news conference of 2014, Obama maintained that there’s room for compromise, so long as politicians “separate out those areas where we disagree and those areas where we agree.” Which means the chief exec isn’t slowing down on unilateral action, no matter how much Republicans fuss. And fuss they will.

Prospects for actual progress will likely come from odd bedfellows. Libertarians and liberals, for example, could join together on civil liberties. The pragmatic wings of both parties could cobble together deals on, say, tax reform, only to have the more ideological wings snuff them out (as they nearly did on the December budget deal). Below, OZY considers how a president freed from political shackles, and a motley band of left-wing and right-wing ideologues, could challenge the status quo in 2015.

A New Gambit in the ‘War on Coal’

The Senate’s new majority leader, Mitch McConnell, is bound to spark a fight when he puts the controversial Keystone XL pipeline up for a vote, as he has promised to do. But the Obama White House has a few unilateral moves up its sleeves — and their implications for the environment and the energy industry are far greater. The president is poised to take on carbon emissions, a political minefield of its own. A forthcoming set of EPA regulations would cut carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. The new rules will hit coal-fired plants especially hard, fueling Republican talk of Obama’s “war on coal”. A draft was released last summer, the final rule is due in June, and opponents have already filed lawsuits.

But wait, there’s more. The EPA is also working on three other sets of environmentally friendly regulations expected to be unveiled next year. New regulations on methane, a particularly noxious greenhouse gas, are expected this month, while regs for smog reduction and truck fuel efficiency are in the works.

Electronic Snooping

Though NSA critics failed to rein in the intelligence agency’s snooping last year, a merry band of civil libertarians — from liberal Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy to conservative Utah Sen. Mike Lee — will have another bite at the apple this year: the June 1 expiration of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. That’s the part that allows the feds’ “bulk collection” of phone records, which was exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013. Defenders of Section 215, in both parties, will try to extend the law before June. But if they can’t get enough votes — and that will be tough — insiders tell OZY that they’ll have to negotiate some sort of compromise with reformers. Even before June, Obama could face pressure to put the kibosh on bulk collection, as opponents of the program have urged him to do. Two lawsuits, ACLU v. Clapper and Smith v. Obama, are pending in the 2nd and 9th District U.S. appellate courts, and should either judge rule against the government, it will put the onus on the White House.

Build That Bridge

Corporate tax reform is among the most promising areas for compromise in 2015, and though it’s a long shot, the biggest winners could be … roads. In the envisaged deal, tax reform would create a federal windfall, and “the idea would be to use it to get an infrastructure burst out of that early money,” explains Chuck Marr, director of federal tax policy for the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Obama endorsed that idea in his Dec. 19 press conference.

American infrastructure desperately needs the money — some $3.6 trillion by 2020 to keep up our roads, bridges, sewers, dams and ports, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers — and absent a new revenue measure, old approaches will have to suffice. But even those are vulnerable. The Highway Trust Fund, which uses gas tax revenues for highway maintenance and to fund state and local projects, is set to expire May 31. With gas prices low, now would be “an ideal time to raise the gas tax,” says Marr. Republicans differ. Sen. Lee of Utah, for instance, would revamp the fund to collect just enough to maintain federal highways while sending the rest of the money to states. “We’re absolutely going to force a discussion on this,” says Lee’s spokesperson.

This OZY encore was originally published Jan. 5, 2015.

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