Friday, July 18, 2008

As economy sours and oil rises, Washington postures

As economy sours and oil rises, Washington postures

David Lightman

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During a week of economic turmoil and wildly fluctuating energy prices, Washington lawmakers did little to calm consumers, opting instead to spent a lot of time trying to land political punches.

Republicans kept talking about the importance of allowing drilling off U.S. coastlines. Democrats countered with how releasing some oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve might help drive down oil prices.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives voted 244-173 Thursday on a largely party-line vote to require oil companies to drill on federally leased land they already control or lose their rights. The bill, which also would speed up leasing in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve, fell far short of the two-thirds needed for passage; President Bush had threatened a veto anyway.

There were small hints of possible legislative breakthroughs, though. Ten senators joined a bipartisan effort to break the energy deadlock. Legislation to provide more regulation of energy futures trading was proceeding.

But most of the lawmakers' time was spent claiming that opponents were stubborn and misreading the American public. Or as Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., put it, "This is all about political games, not about solving our country's problems."

Data show vividly that the public agrees.

A Quinnipiac University poll taken July 8-13 found that a scant 14 percent of likely voters approved of the way Congress is handling its job. That percentage is below the 26 percent who approved of President Bush's performance.

The disdain of Congress had a bipartisan tinge. The approval rating among Democrats was 19 percent, compared with 15 percent among Republicans and 8 percent among independents.

Polls also suggest that the public is willing to embrace a number of solutions to the energy and economic crunch.

"The public doesn't know that much about the respective energy plans," said Carroll Doherty, Pew Research Center associate director. "They want something done."

In a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey conducted last month, three-fourths of those surveyed said they backed "increased drilling for oil in the U.S. immediately," while about half urged building new nuclear-power plants.

Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, have a long list of remedies, and experts think that having a long menu of options is good politics and good policy.

"I'd rather have both candidates not get committed to a lot of specifics," said Philip Sharp, the president of Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan research group, "so they can have room to govern when they get to the White House. I want to know broadly where they are."

Robert Kaufmann, the director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University, put it this way. "Voters will probably want to pick some from column A and some from column B," he said.

But the Democratic-controlled Congress and the Bush White House and its Republican allies appear deadlocked.

Bush this week stepped up his push to open coastal waters to drilling, lifting an 18-year-old executive ban.

"It makes sense to me to say to the world that we're going to use new technologies to explore for oil and gas in the United States," the president said, "offshore oil, ANWR (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), oil shale products — to help change the psychology, to send a clear message that the supplies of oil will increase."

Congress still must approve overturning the ban, and within hours of Bush's action Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi branded the idea a "hoax." The next day, she hosted an economic meeting at which participants were Democrats or experts sympathetic to the party's positions.

"It's important that the American people understand that our own Department of Energy has said, at best, you're talking about Americans seeing some effect at the pump 10 years from now," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Bush said, in effect, so what?

Noting that some analysts estimate that it will be at least seven years until the impact of offshore drilling is felt, the president said, "If we'd done it seven years ago, we'd be having a different conversation today."

Van Hollen and other Democrats instead suggested releasing some oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. "It is something that will have an impact within 10 days at the price at the pump," Pelosi said.

Nonsense, Bush said. The reserve, he said, is for emergencies, and using some of it wouldn't address the "fundamental issue" of how to find alternative sources of energy.

Looking at the broader economy, Democrats this week suggested a new stimulus package that could provide energy assistance for low-income people, more money for infrastructure, new tax rebates, help for families facing foreclosure and aid to states' Medicare programs. Bush and other Republicans have said it's too soon to talk about such a plan.

If there's any consensus, it's this: No one knows what solutions make the most sense, said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas.

"We're on untrodden ground. Nobody has a good metric for predicting what will happen on energy or the economy," he said.

This much is clear, though: The public is tired of the constant sniping and the only rare attempts to fix things.

"The public is looking for solutions," said Doherty of the Pew Research Center. "They don't see this as an ideological issue."

ON THE WEB

The Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll on Americans' views of energy alternatives: http://www.foxnews.com/projects/pdf/062108_energy_release_web.pdf

The Quinnipiac poll: http://www.quinnipiac.edu/x1295.xml?ReleaseID=1192

The House roll call vote on the drilling bill: http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2008/roll511.xml

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