Maybe Republicans in the Senate have learned something from the perjury case against Scooter Libby after all. When oil company executives appeared today before a Senate hearing on energy prices and profits, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens refused to place them under oath.
Daniel Inouye, the ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, said that oil companies should want their testimony to come with a sworn statement that they're telling the truth. "If I were a witness, I would prefer to be sworn in so the public knows what I was about to say is the truth," CNN quotes Inouye as saying. "If I were a witness, I would demand to take the oath."
But representatives from Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, Conoco and Shell didn't make that demand, and Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, didn't push it. "There is nothing in the standing rules to require that witnesses be sworn," Stevens said. "These witnesses accepted the invitation to appear before the committee voluntarily. I shall not administer an oath today." Stevens said that witnesses before Congress are under a legal obligation to tell the truth whether they're sworn in before testifying or not.
Once the executives began testifying at today's joint hearing of the Senate Commerce and Energy committees, they defended, as expected, their massive third-quarter profits. Lee Raymond, whose Exxon Mobil Corp. earned nearly $10 billion in the third quarter, said that he understood that high gas prices have "put a strain on Americans' household budgets." But he insisted that his company's profits were both legitimate and appropriate, saying that petroleum earnings "go up and down" each year, and that the oil companies are entitled to take the good along with the bad.
It's not clear what, if anything, will come of the Senate hearings. As much as anything else, high gas prices have hurt the president's standing with Middle America, and Republicans in Congress realize that they need to offer at least the appearance of concern. Pete Domenici, the Republican senator from New Mexico, said that there is "growing suspicion that oil companies are taking unfair advantage," and that the companies "now owe the country an explanation." But as the oil companies report huge profits, Republicans in Congress might owe the country an explanation, too -- for why they pushed through an energy bill in the spring that offered billions of dollars' worth of tax breaks for energy producers, and for why they responded to the spike in gas prices after Hurricane Katrina with a bill that would have provided federal insurance for oil companies whose projects are stalled by lawsuits or regulatory delays.