Elizabeth MacDonough isn’t a household name. Not by a long shot. She almost never speaks publicly. But her job is massively important for a functioning democracy. For the last decade, MacDonough has served as the U.S. Senate parliamentarian. What’s that you ask? It’s her job to check bills against the byzantine labyrinth of Senate rules for passing budgets.

Most recently, MacDonough refereed a fight between Democrats and Republicans about whether carbon dioxide – essentially greenhouse gas – can be defined as an air pollutant.

MacDonough found herself in that position because of the unfathomable Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia v. EPA in June. The Supreme Court ruled against an obsolete and non-existent EPA plan that would have required states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions through generation shifting – exchanging high producing sources like coal to lower ones like natural gas, wind, and solar.

The Supreme Court found that Congress, in passing the Clean Air Act, had not given the Environmental Protection Agency broad regulatory authority to institute generation shifting. In his concurring opinion Justice Neil M. Gorsuch put the smack down on Congress:

“When Congress seems slow to solve problems, it may be only natural that those in the executive branch might seek to take matters into their own hands. But the Constitution does not authorize agencies to use pen-and-phone regulations as substitutes for laws passed by the people’s representatives.”

Well, Justice Gorsuch, now it has. Tucked in landmark climate law passed earlier this month are amendments to Title VI of the Clean Air Act. New language defines greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, hydrofluorocarbons, methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride.

The bottom line is that greenhouse gases in general and carbon dioxide in particular are pollutants under the Clean Air Act, giving EPA an opportunity to develop new plans to combat climate change.

And the nation has MacDonough to thank. That’s because Republicans hated the idea that Clean Air Act language was part of a reconciliation budget bill that could pass the Senate with a simple majority.

Republicans made their case to MacDonough on Aug. 3 in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Room off the Senate floor. For more than three hours, Republicans and Democrats duked it out. In the end, MacDonough allowed the language amending Clean Air Act to remain. The bill ultimately passed the Senate 51-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote.

That’s not to say there won’t be more lawsuits against whatever EPA cooks up to deal with carbon dioxide. There will be. But winning those lawsuits just got tougher.  

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Investigate Midwest covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect Investigate Midwest. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

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