High Gas Prices Produce More Games Than Gains

Posted July 25, 2008 at 1:25pm

The political equivalent of an internal-combustion engine’s chain reaction is this: High gas prices ignite consumer anger, which powers accelerated PR efforts geared toward diverting blame and alleviating pain (at the pump).

[IMGCAP(1)]That is not to say Members of Congress are not genuinely interested in forging a national energy policy. It’s just that in the interim they will seize on any alternative survival source to propel them over the November election hump.

Let’s knock down some of the obvious stunts. I suspect I am not the only person in America who wonders every time a pack of Congressional leaders pose for national television cameras in front of gasoline pumps, “What in the world are they thinking?” Yes, they are there to announce their concern over soaring gas prices and their latest initiative to do something about the issue. But has it ever occurred to them that the image they are actually projecting to millions of Americans says quite another thing — that they are somehow associated with the $4-plus/gallon price tag displayed over their shoulders? Clever sound bites are trumped by incriminating video bites every time.

Next, let’s acknowledge that proposals to suspend federal gasoline taxes aren’t fooling anyone. Most people are well aware that their gas taxes go to building critical roads and bridges, already in a state of fatal disrepair. Does anyone really think drivers will be grateful for a few cents a gallon less at the pump in return for the next bridge collapse?

Third, we have been told that we must dip into our Strategic Petroleum Reserve to increase supplies and lower costs. For what little difference it might make at the pump, does anyone really think Americans will sleep easier knowing we’ve drained our national emergency fuel supplies so it will cost the family a little less to drive to the beach?

Let’s turn to some of the current activities in Congress aimed at addressing the energy problem. House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) tried in full committee to substitute the entire Interior appropriations bill for the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education bill in order to bring up an offshore drilling amendment. With that, Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) pulled the plug and vowed he wouldn’t hold another appropriations markup so long as Republicans insisted on playing games.

Yes, it was a bold and over-the-top stunt, but Democrats were not averse to playing games to highlight their priorities when they were in the minority. In the 108th Congress, for example, then-ranking member Obey offered amendments to five bills in committee and on the floor to increase funding over existing spending caps, offset by tax increases on the wealthy. That, too, was clearly a non-germane game. Instead of pulling their bills, however, Republicans eventually gave Obey a free-standing vote on a revised budget resolution authorizing his spending and tax increases. He lost the vote but succeeded in getting a separate debate on his priorities.

Republicans’ frustration is especially understandable when you consider that Democrats have been going out of their way to block any opportunity for Republicans to offer amendments to related energy bills. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has promised to bring up all her energy bills under suspension of the rules (usually reserved for naming post offices), meaning no floor amendments and no minority motion to recommit (a final amendment).

They did this twice alone on “use it or lose it” bills for existing mineral leases on public lands, and again last week on a Strategic Petroleum Reserve bill. The Democrats did “lose it” every time, unable to secure the two-thirds vote needed for passage. But they claimed political victories by getting Republicans to vote against purported energy bills. (Using the suspension-of-the-rules procedure is a sure tip-off to political games, as is the fact that none of the bills had been reported by a committee.)

The other silver bullet, we are told, is cracking down on oil and gas speculators — legislation currently stalled in the Senate but slated for another House suspension vote this week. While those who deal in mineral futures may be responsible for some price inflation, it is a stretch to think that curbing speculation will dramatically lower prices at the pump. At least there has been some bipartisan cooperation in both chambers in developing an acceptable approach to a dubious solution.

Another bipartisan initiative is forming in both houses for new offshore drilling. Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) are heading-up a “Gang of 10” Senators, while Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and John Peterson (R-Pa.) are spearheading a “Gang of 20” House Members in favor of a vote, notwithstanding some Democratic leadership opposition to across-the-aisle collusion. Just three days after Roll Call carried the headline “Parties Set to Work Together on Drilling,” a counter-thrust from the Speaker produced the headline, “Pelosi Maneuvers to Block Drilling Votes.”

While the public may not know of all the energy games being played on the Hill, it knows enough to conclude that Congress is fiddling while drivers burn. It’s little wonder that Congress’ job-approval rating this month, as measured by Gallup, is at an all-time low of 14 percent. For those who think voters will punish only Republicans at the polls in November because of administration policies, take a hard look at those numbers: Bush’s job-approval rating is twice as high at 28 percent. Unless bipartisanship prevails in producing a real energy bill soon, a “drill-nothing Congress” could blow some dry holes in both parties’ ranks.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.