Passing gas prices

The House GOP tries to stick the blame for soaring gasoline prices on the Dems.

Published June 19, 2004 6:03PM (EDT)

If at first you succeed, well, try again anyway.

That's how GOP leaders in the House are reinterpreting the old elementary-school bromide as they attempt to create the illusion of hope for the doomed, pork-laden energy bill -- and to deflect the political heat over high gas prices away from the White House and onto the Democrats.

For more than a month, the Republican House leadership has been planning a much-touted "energy week" centered on legislation (PDF) that mimics nearly verbatim the Energy Policy Act -- that same old bill that sailed through the House last fall with avid support from the White House, but was then defeated twice by filibusters in the Senate.

Energy week, which was scheduled for last week but sputtered in the face of memorial services for Ronald Reagan, has now been condensed into a two-day event starting today, during which the House will vote on the revived energy bill and a series of other bills designed to boost energy production in the United States -- and ostensibly reduce gas prices.

Among the bills is a renewed effort (PDF) introduced by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., last week to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration. Another bill (PDF) would give the Department of Energy authority to build new oil-refining facilities in low-employment communities nationwide, even if the U.S. EPA objects on the grounds that the refineries would cause disproportionate pollution problems in those areas. A third (PDF) proposes to weaken National Environmental Policy Act requirements for the siting of "renewable energy projects" -- a term loosely defined in the bill as "any proposal to utilize an energy source other than nuclear power or the combustion of coal, oil, or natural gas," meaning it could accelerate not only the development of hydroelectric dams but also, bizarrely, the exploration for and drilling of fossil fuels.

"The public should be outraged," said Mark Wenzler, director of global warming and energy programs at National Environmental Trust. "Congress is wasting time and energy on bills that are so preposterous, so damaging to the environment, and so irrelevant to the larger pursuit of lowering gas prices that they would surely be dead on arrival in the Senate."

Critics say the House leadership knows full well that the bills will never make it to the president's desk. They argue that the energy package is a transparently political maneuver to push through a series of bills that Senate Democrats will be sure to vote against, thereby creating an opportunity for Republicans to blame Democrats for high gas prices.

"The whole thing is a sham," said Jim Waltman, director of refuge and wildlife programs for the Wilderness Society. "It's just an elaborate Beltway blame game."

Lisa Miller, a spokesperson for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, made no bones about the fact that GOP leaders in the House are making a political statement: The shortened energy week "is simply a way to reinforce the fact that the nation requires a cohesive policy which provides energy to people at prices they can afford to pay."

One of her colleagues on the committee staff, who asked to remain anonymous, put it even more directly: "This is designed as basically a nudge to the Senate. It makes the statement at a time of high gas prices that America needs an aggressive energy policy and we need it now."

Yet there's no reason to believe that the energy bill would do anything at all to ease the pinch at the pump. In fact, according to a report released recently by the Energy Information Administration, a data-collection arm of the Department of Energy, even if the bill were passed, "changes to production, consumption, imports, and prices [would be] negligible."

Still, President Bush has been pressing for the bill in the name of lower gas prices: "I'll repeat it again: Congress, pass the energy bill," he told reporters at a press conference on June 1. "What you're seeing at the gas pumps is something I've been warning for two years, and that is that we're hooked on foreign sources of energy ... Had we drilled in ANWR back in the mid-'90s, [it would have taken] enormous pressure off the American consumer."

At a June 2 press conference, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, not only told reporters that it was time to "turn up the heat a notch" on Senate Democrats to pass the energy bill -- he said that the real culprits for America's energy woes were Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Tom Daschle, D-S.D., whom he blamed for failing to get enough Democratic votes to push the bill through the Senate.

Daschle's press secretary, Sarah Feinberg, dismissed the House's maneuvering as a stunt: "This effort is the definition of the do-nothing Congress ... The Republican leaders of the House are now spending days of taxpayer time and dollars making a big to-do about passing legislation that they've already passed simply to make political hay out of this issue. How much more desperate can they get?"

Feinberg added that the GOP leaders aren't really serious about passing the energy bill: "If they were, they'd remove the liability waiver for MTBE manufacturers, which is the major point of contention for the bipartisan opposition to the bill," she said.

Bill Wicker, spokesperson for the Democratic members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, added that "the greatest irony of all is that on some level it isn't in the GOP's interest for this energy bill to pass." Here's why: It would be seen as a political win for Daschle, who has been the leading Democratic voice in favor of the bill. Daschle is in a tight race for reelection, and Republicans eager to see him knocked from his seat don't want to give him any good news to take home to corn growers in his home state, who would stand to benefit from ethanol subsidies in the bill.

"The House wants to repass this energy bill for one reason alone: to put the bogey on Senate Democrats," Wicker told Muckraker. "It's shameless politicking. But what else can you expect in an election year?"

How's this for a once-in-a-blue-moon scenario? Six major environmental groups endorse a sweeping international treaty strongly supported by the American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups.

On May 12, top dogs from the Natural Resources Defense Council, National Environmental Trust, the Ocean Conservancy, and three other green organizations put their names on a political ad published in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call calling for ratification of the U.N.'s Law of the Sea Treaty -- an international accord that API hails as "important to our efforts to develop domestic offshore oil and natural gas resources," according to a large pull quote featured in the ad.

The oil and water folks, as it were, who have long refused to mix, have since been working alongside a broad range of other interest groups to convince Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to schedule a Senate vote to ratify the Law of the Sea before Congress goes into summer recess.

The agreement establishes rules governing uses of the world's oceans -- specifically, waters that are more than 200 nautical miles off coasts (waters closer to shore are considered an "exclusive economic zone" governed by the coastal country). The treaty charts out the jurisdictions, rights, and controls each coastal country has vis-à-vis the military navigation, commercial exploitation, and environmental conservation of these far-flung seas, which are increasingly trafficked by the fishing, shipping, and energy industries, not to mention naval ships.

Of particular interest to environmentalists is the treaty's oversight laws for pollution and waste-dumping in these waters, as well as guidelines against overfishing and protections for whales, dolphins and other creatures of the deep.

What appeals to the petroleum and mining industries is the right of access afforded by the treaty to mineral-rich nether regions; U.S. companies can't compete against foreign competitors for drilling and mining rights in international waters so long as the U.S resists the treaty.

More pressing still are the interests of the military: Officials from both the Defense Department and the State Department have testified on behalf of the Law of the Sea during Senate hearings, arguing that it's vital for national security.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave unanimous approval to the treaty in February, but since then it's made no more progress toward full Senate approval.

Mark Helmke, an aide to the committee's chair, Dick Lugar, R-Ind., put it to Muckraker this way: "Any rational Beltway official -- including the president, Colin Powell and Condi Rice -- will tell you that ratification of the treaty is critical to the strength of our Navy, our national security, our economy, and the global environment, and that the failure to ratify signals to the world that the United States flouts multilateralism." Currently, 145 countries have signed onto Law of the Sea, including every other member of the U.N. Security Council.

But there's one U.S. constituency that doesn't like the treaty -- arch-conservatives who reject multilateralism in all its forms on ideological grounds. "Basically, we have a bunch of fringe, armchair, isolationist ideologues who are holding up this treaty, and the Bush administration's political office has made a calculated decision to let them have their way," Helmke said.

These right-wingers -- who include Frank Gaffney, a darling of the arms industry who heads up the Center for Security Policy, and Phyllis Schlafly, director of the Eagle Forum and a longtime pillar of the U.S. über-nationalist movement -- are very well organized politically. "They get picked up by all the conservative radio talk-show hosts who fan the flames on this thing and dish out scare tactics that the U.N. is going to take over every little fishing pond in the world," Helmke told Muckraker.

The armchair isolationists also have direct access to the office of Karl Rove: "These guys have been quiet while the White House invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and even when it recently decided to play nice with the U.N. But they're at the end of their tether. They basically went to Bush's political strategists and said, 'We've been good boys in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we need something to raise money off of, to motivate our [anti-U.N.] constituency in election year.' And they were given this."

Ironically, it was the United States that originally took the lead on drafting this latest Law of the Sea convention in 1973 under Richard Nixon (two previous such conventions were implemented in the '50s and '60s). But by the time the negotiations were completed in 1982, Ronald Reagan was in office and he declined to sign on because of pressure from ultraconservatives and specific objections to deep seabed mining provisions. "The beef that the right-wingers have is that the U.N. commission requires all nations who are accessing deep-sea minerals to pay royalties that provide proceeds for a global fund," said Debbie Reed, legislative director for NET.

Bill Clinton, for his part, signed the treaty in 1994 but was unable to get it ratified by the Senate because Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. -- then chair of the Foreign Relations Committee -- was hell-bent on sabotaging it. When Lugar succeeded Helms in 2003, the Navy exhorted him to push the treaty through. Lugar has since held two Senate hearings on the matter and met twice with Condoleezza Rice to try to make it happen.

It wasn't that the Bushies weren't onboard: They added the treaty to an official list of international accords they wanted the Senate to ratify last February, and top-level administration officials have openly extolled the agreement. But when push came to shove, the administration was hesitant: "After Lugar talked with Rice," Helmke told Muckraker, "the word came back very meekly from the National Security Council saying, 'We will continue to give lip service to this, but we won't push it directly.'"

Meanwhile, Frist has refused to schedule a full Senate vote on the treaty.

"Frist is the new Helms," said Reed. "He comes off as this friendly moderate, but he's doing the right-wing dirty work."

Behind the scenes, says Reed, Frist may be doing the bidding of the Bush administration's political office, but it's just as likely that Frist's own office is responsible for the holdup. Frist has had two former Helms staffers on his team, and "he has consistently voted like a staunch unilateralist during his entire Senate career," said Heather Hamilton, vice president for programs at Citizens for Global Solutions, an organization that advocates international cooperation and has been an avid supporter of Law of the Sea.

The effects of not joining the treaty could be immense: For one, Russia right now is trying to lay claim to deep seabeds beneath melting Arctic ice that are newly accessible to drilling thanks to global warming. The treaty is scheduled to be amended this fall, and its members are begging the U.S. to come onboard before then to put a stop to Russia's bullying claims. Without a superpower, there's no one to throw its weight against Russia in the negotiations.

"The ultimate irony is that these right-wingers have spent decades being vehemently anti-Soviet," said Helmke, "and now they're letting Russia take over Santa Claus land."

A congressional aide who spoke to Muckraker on condition of anonymity said that Frist's recalcitrance on this issue is irking moderate Republicans and Democrats alike: "Frist is supposed to be the leader of the Senate Republicans but he's doing the bidding of a radical few." If Frist did decide to put it on the calendar, said the aide, "we could get well over the 70 votes necessary to pass this treaty. Guaranteed."

By Amanda Griscom

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