The House, apparently, is around to make sure the transformation doesn't get out of hand.
First, in a show of GOP loyalty that will almost certainly not survive a broader vote in the full House (and forget about the Senate), the Resources Committee forwarded by a 26-17 vote the Administration's plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and exempt oil companies for two years from paying government royalties on oil obtained under new drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Taking notes for Senate Democrats, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., called the product a $7.4 billion ''grab bag of goodies for big oil'' and an ''unprecedented assault on our resources.''
Then, in an ironic twist, House Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee said they reluctantly will oppose a ten-year, $40 billion package of energy tax breaks that includes tax credits for hybrid-fuel cars, residential solar systems and alternative fuels because they were worried about the budget surplus.
And finally, in a show of true bipartisanship, Billy Tauzin and John Dingell let the SUV get away.
Even as the National Academy of Sciences via a draft of a report commissioned by George W. Bush for August and leaked to the Times Tuesday let it be known that fuel economy for automobiles and SUVs could be increased 8 to 11 miles per gallon using new technology without hindering safety, the head Republican and Democrat, respectively, on the House Energy and Commerce Committee got together Tuesday and compromised on a plan calling for a SUV/minivan increase of… 1 mpg.
This was supposed to be the easy one. The government hasn't significantly bumped up its CAFE standards (currently 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for SUVs and minivans) since 1984, long before the gas-guzzling soccer-mom-mobiles completely took over our nation's highways and byways. It's generally seen as a not-too-onerous way of prodding the auto industry to help conserve gasoline without resorting to that economically preferable but politically suicidal alternative, the gas tax.
Tauzin claimed the compromise reached on fuel economy for SUVs would reduce the amount of gasoline used by 5 billion gallons over the next six years; Democrats called it "a lost opportunity" to do a whole lot more. But Tauzin, from oil-rich Louisiana, is one of Bush's staunchest fellow believers in production, production, production, and Dingell, well, he's from Detroit. Auto town.
See, despite what you may have heard about strong auto sales lately, SUVs, minivans and light trucks are about the only way Detroit makes any money these days and that just happens to be the sector under heaviest attack from Japanese brands. And the U.S. carmakers losing ground. Just this quarter, General Motors registered a 73% decline in net income, in party because of competition from Japanse car companies for the coveted SUV market. Congressmen from the Motor City don't ask too much of the auto industry in the middle of a manufacturing recession and overall slowdown.
Of course it helps that the American people aren't asking too much of their congressmen right now, at least when it comes to energy. Bush and Cheney have switched their emphasis to conservation to try and undo the damage Cheney and his "personal virtue" oil-speak did when the plan launched in May, but everybody seems to agree that the clamoring for more and cheaper energy is now limited to the professional energy lobbyists.
Remember the $3 gallon of gas? Pump prices have declined by 30 cents a gallon to a national average of $1.41 a gallon since their mid-May high 16 cents in the last week alone and 13 cents lower than last summer at this time, according to the Energy Department. Natural gas prices, after hitting $10 a thousand cubic feet last December, have dropped to the $3 range. Even in California, dire warnings of countless days of blackouts this summer have not materialized there hasn't been one since early May and electricity prices have declined dramatically. And more power is expected to come on line from several new plants in the coming weeks. All of which has left America wondering what all the fuss was about.
"Anytime there's not an immediate problem that's apparent to people it's tough to convince people to think long-term," sniffed Bush before he, Cheney, Gail Norton and Spencer Abraham fanned out across the country Monday. (Bush did not publicly reconsider the wisdom of using a predictably short-term "crisis" to sell the plan in the first place.)
That's especially true of congressmen with an election coming up next fall long-term is a luxury not every politician can afford. In the House, Bush has his Republican allies pushing for more production and delivering short-lived committee victories, and his Democratic enemies pushing for more conservation but often as was the case Tuesday running into conflicts with their desire to bust Bush for busting the budget.
But what everybody knows is that Tom Daschle will bury ANWR and anything else he deems too extreme when the Senate takes its look at the energy package in September. And after all the political blows have been exchanged and all the votes taken, the Washington-authored changes in the national energy picture will probably amount to the same thing Tauzin and Dingell came up with: