Comparing the New CCC to the Original

Published October 26, 2023

One paragraph in President Biden’s 2021 inauguration-day climate policy executive order directed a feasibility study for a new CCC, a “Civilian Climate Corps.” Congressional committees asked: What exactly would it do? They have asked about it only occasionally since then, so the President has issued an executive order creating the new program, now called the “American Climate Corps.” Observers are still asking what it is, but also how it can be created with a mere signature.

Biden says it is modeled after the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and international elements of the Peace Corps. Yet neither of those programs existed entirely by executive order. Presidents Roosevelt (1933) and Kennedy (1961) issued those orders with the speedy approval of Congress, authorizing the activity and appropriating the funds. In fact, Biden’s 2021 order specifically said the program could only be developed “within existing appropriations,” meaning he knows Congress would not approve it. Perhaps at one time, even Biden understood that new agencies and programs require congressional authorization.

Presidential power is only limited by the checks and balances of the other two branches, and then only if Congress or the courts decide to intervene. That is rare with executive orders, though when they are based on no authorization from Congress, or in some cases run afoul of the expressed will of Congress, courts have done so. A famous Supreme Court precedent dates from the 1952 case, Youngstown Company v Sawyer, in which the court invalidated a Truman executive order. Justice Felix Frankfurter pointed out that Congress had considered the specific issue and declined to act. Ditto the new Climate Corps, considered as part of the “Build Back Better Act,” but deleted from the final bill.

The original CCC was aimed at reducing unemployment by giving young men steady work in improving public lands and infrastructure. It was the largest public works program in history, employing over three million men in 2,600 camps. The “CCC boys” planted trees, built roads, campgrounds, and other facilities in national parks and national forests. Colorado had 172 CCC camps, whose corps built primary facilities in all its national parks and monuments. They built Red Rocks Amphitheater near Morrison and irrigation projects at Elk Springs, Grand Valley, Pine River, Uncompahgre, and Mancos. Land’s End Road up the western side of Grand Mesa was built by the CCC, as was Virginia’s George Washington Parkway along the Potomac, and dozens of other scenic routes nationwide.  

The CCC was created, funded, and eventually abolished by Acts of Congress. The Peace Corps was authorized by Congress and has been funded by annual appropriations ever since. Both agencies were extremely popular, so we naturally wonder, perhaps with anticipation of similar good works, what kind of projects will the new American Climate Corps undertake?

Biden’s press release says it “aims to put more than 20,000 young people to work in jobs that promote renewable energy and combat climate change.” His climate advisor calls it a “workforce training and service initiative that will ensure more young people have access to the skills-based training necessary for good paying careers in the clean energy and climate resilience economy.” Does that mean the federal government will train employees for private companies? Neither the CCC nor the Peace Corps did that – their trainees worked for the government. Or does the government itself plan to run wind and solar companies?

Several environmental industry groups gushed about the new program; one known as the Sunrise Movement even organized protests demanding it. All twelve of their members showed up with nicely printed signs, and they have a website. Their spokesman says the new climate corps will “conserve our land and water, bolster community resilience, advance environmental justice and tackle the climate crisis.” Not a very specific job description. He is excited that “Unlike FDR’s CCC, which only employed white men, this climate corps will uplift and empower a diverse and inclusive workforce.” Where did he get that idea? In fact, the original CCC employed over 250,000 African American youth and 15,000 Native Americans.

Congress will not authorize Biden’s new program. The Senate Minority Leader already called it a “made-up government work program … for young liberal activists.” That may be an exaggeration, but the point is that this program is unlikely to get off the ground. Congresswoman AOC introduced a bill to authorize $132.5 billion for it, but it will not pass. And as one writer said, “Funding a sweeping new program is more complicated in the absence of legislation.”

The White House says more details “will be rolled out in the coming weeks.” I can’t wait to see how they will duplicate history’s largest public works program with the stroke of one pen.

Photo by FDR Presidential Library & Museum. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.