Democrats’ Energy Bill Hits House With a Dull Thud

Posted September 26, 2008 at 4:05pm

Something went bump in the night Sept. 15. It was the dull thud of the House Democrats’ 290-page energy bill being dropped in the bill hopper at 9:45 p.m.

[IMGCAP(1)]An hour later, the bill was bundled up a marble staircase to the House Rules Committee for a quickie “emergency” hearing, bypassing all nine standing committees to which it had just been referred.

After turning down both Republican and bipartisan energy substitutes (as well as the other 14 amendments submitted), the Rules Committee filed a special rule for the bill in a near-empty House chamber at midnight. The rule called for three hours of general debate and one motion to recommit. The rule and bill were the first items of business on the House floor the next day (far less than the “24 hours to examine a bill … prior to floor consideration” Democrats promised in their 2006 campaign manifesto for majority control).

The Rules Committee had once again struck a blow for energy efficiency: No House Members would have to lift a finger in trying to improve the bill with amendments.

The Democratic leadership, working behind closed doors, had produced their immaculate conception of a politically passable national energy plan. They even named it the Comprehensive American Energy Security and Consumer Protection Act lest there be any doubt. (Do not try to pronounce that acronym at home.)

Republican Rep. John Peterson (Pa.) was designated to offer the minority’s motion to recommit the bill to committee with instructions (a final amendment). It consisted of the “Gang of 10’s” bipartisan energy substitute, which Peterson had fashioned with Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii). The motion lost 191-226, picking up just 13 Democratic votes (not including Abercrombie’s). The Democratic bill went on to pass by a similar margin, with only 15 Republicans voting for it.

There was no realistic expectation that, even if the Senate passed its own bill, differences could be reconciled before adjournment. The Senate exceeded expectations: Nothing went anywhere except for some renewable-energy tax incentives.

For months, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) adamantly resisted allowing any floor votes on expanded offshore drilling (even at the expense of the entire appropriations process). However, this month she did a 180-degree pivot and acceded to the demands of vulnerable Democrats who had gotten an earful from angry constituents over the August recess about gasoline prices.

Pelosi delegated the bill-drafting duties to oil-patch Democrat Rep. Gene Green (Texas). Multiple drafts were vetted in a series of formal and informal party meetings, helping to ensure Pelosi’s aim of keeping most Members on board and reaching the magic 218 number for passage. (The final compromise permitted drilling beyond where most oil is located.)

Democrats had originally hoped to wait until next year and an expected Democratic administration to work on a better energy bill that could be signed into law. Besides, they had passed a big energy bill just last year. Had the people already forgotten? Apparently so. Voters wanted more and better now, and were breathing down Members’ election-year necks.

Legislating energy policy should not be as partisan an issue as this month’s votes might imply and should lend itself to working out compromises across the aisle. It has always been more a regional issue pitting consuming states against producing states. But the Speaker’s stiff resistance to any vote on drilling energized House Republicans. They took the issue and ran with it during the August recess both in the abandoned House chamber and back in their districts.

The GOP guerrilla theater on the House floor during the recess got plenty of media attention, even without lights, cameras or microphones. The Republicans’ mock debates succeeded in turning up the heat on Democrats. Whether the Republican play-House produced more heat than light was not important. It had succeeded in forcing the issue to a floor vote in September by illuminating the matter with a creative flair.

The Democrats’ response to GOP antics — crafting a partisan energy bill in backroom bargaining — was their way of paying Republicans their just desserts (even though the watered-down compromise struck many as a pudding without a theme). It now appears the Democrats have little to show for their efforts except chocolate-smeared cheeks and a bill to nowhere (though the expiration of the offshore drilling moratorium portends early action on energy next year).

With all the recent turbulence in the financial and housing markets and a slight downturn in oil prices, people may lose sight of energy as a persistent problem (though America’s energy dependence is closely tied to its financial plight). My guess is that most Americans will conflate these and other issues and decide the time is ripe for change on a whole range of festering problems, from fiscal and financial to energy and jobs.

The questions confronting voters between now and Nov. 4 are: Which party stands for real change and what exactly should that entail? With Congress’ job- approval ratings running around 20 percent, its feeble, partisan fumbling this month in pretending it has done something to reduce energy dependence may have put a pox on both their houses.

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.