Congress and the Politics of Energy Policy

A seminar with Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.); Alex Flint, Majority Staff Director, Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee; Bruce Oppenheimer - Vanderbilt University; Dan Morgan - The Washington Post

May 16, 2005

For the third consecutive Congress the House and Senate are trying to cobble together a national energy policy. However, despite public anger over high gasoline prices, it is not certain the 109th Congress will be able to succeed where its two predecessor congresses have failed.

That was the conclusion of a panel of Capitol Hill policymakers and observers at the Wilson Center's Congress Project Seminar on "Congress and the Politics of Energy Policy." The closest any panelist would come to predicting the outcome in this Congress was Senate Energy Committee Republican Staff Director Alex Flint, who said he was "an optimist in all aspects of my life, including this."

Getting all the pieces of a very complex energy jigsaw puzzle to fit together is a very challenging political feat, the panelists agreed, but not all agreed that the current Congress and president were working with the right pieces of the puzzle to begin with. Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a member of both the House Energy Committee and the House Resources Committee--which share jurisdiction over the bill--said the bill that passed the House in April, by a vote of 249 to 183, would actually increase the price of gasoline by 3 to 8 cents a gallon because of the ethanol mandate in the bill. Moreover, the bill only further subsidizes traditional energy sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas, while doing little to encourage renewable energy or increased conservation and efficiency measures.

Political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer compared the energy crisis and congressional efforts of the 1970s to today's situation and found that there is much less media, and thus public, attention to the problem, and Congress is much more partisan today, meaning that there is no longer an incentive to work for compromise in the middle. "In the 70s, you built coalitions in the middle, and it was the liberal and conservative extremes that tried to defeat the middle." Today, by contrast, said Oppenheimer, the policy is built from the middle of the majority party out.

On the media and public attention factors, Oppenheimer speculated that the decreasing interest since the 1970s may be due to the fact that there are no gasoline lines today and people have become more accustomed to gas price fluctuations. On the partisan makeup of Congress today, Oppenheimer said it is due in part to the fact that there are fewer Democrats in the energy producing states and fewer Republicans in the energy consuming states. It is still mainly a regional debate between the producing and consuming states, and the changing party demographics of the country only reinforce and highlight this split in party terms. Finally, the more partisan Congress today delegates more powers to party leaders to get things done, and this further exacerbates partisan confrontation and lessens the need or the incentive for bipartisan cooperation and compromise.

Washington Post reporter Dan Morgan observed that this year's energy debate is looking the same as that which occurred in the last two Congresses. "It's like watching the same movie over again in slow motion, like ‘Groundhog Day.'" The same issues are the main sticking points that could drag down a final bill to defeat or stalemate. Those issues include whether to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and whether to extend liability protection to the manufactures of MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether), a gasoline additive designed to produce cleaner emissions, yet also responsible for groundwater contamination. The House-passed bill protects MTBE makers from liability suits without providing funds for local communities to pay for the clean-up.

Alex Flint, who joined the Senate Energy Committee as staff director in 2003 when Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) became its chairman, said that unlike the House, which tends to proceed in a more partisan manner with little consultation with or input from the minority party, "in the Senate this year there has been a process of inclusiveness," with Domenici and his Democratic counterpart on the committee, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), working together to fashion a bipartisan compromise on as many issues as they can. The Energy Committee markup of the bill is set to begin May 17 and could take two weeks before the measure is ready for floor action. Moreover, the energy tax provisions must be worked out in the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.). Senate floor action on the bill could take weeks. Two Congresses ago, the energy bill died in House-Senate conference committee in October 2002 where it had been stalled for four months. In the last Congress, the conference report on the bill died of a Senate filibuster in November 2003, mainly over the MTBE issue. Flint says he is worried about the future energy outlook for a number of reasons, including the growing Asian demand for energy, especially from China, and the difficulty in meeting U.S. emission standards. "If we cannot convert coal into a clean alternative, we are in deep trouble," Flint noted, since so much of our electricity is generated by coal- fired plants.

When asked whether nuclear energy was a more attractive alternative today since it does not contribute to global warming as burning fossil fuels do, Markey said "it was Wall Street that killed nuclear power, not some bead-wearing, guitar strumming hippies." Most of France's electricity is produced by nuclear power plants because they have a socialist government that builds and funds the plants, Markey noted. In the U.S. you still have the problem of nobody wanting a nuclear plant built in their back yard. When asked whether the U.S. will need another energy bill in a few years, even if the current legislation is enacted, Markey said it will be necessary when people realize this one hasn't done a thing to solve our problem.

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