All Revved Up, Going Nowhere on Energy Policy

Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Sunday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times website at

Everyone in Washington expressed the requisite outrage last week about spiraling gas prices. But no one seemed outraged enough to seriously reassess any of the tired and rigid thinking that has paralyzed America’s energy policy for years.

The energy debate stands as a prime example of Washington’s deteriorating capacity to meaningfully confront problems.

There’s little mystery about the available options for reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and its vulnerability to the sort of price rise now battering drivers at the pump. The list would include producing more oil and gas at home, encouraging more conservation, and promoting greater use of clean, renewable energy.


But for years, Washington hasn’t accomplished much on any of those fronts. Each party has repeatedly derailed the most ambitious proposals of the other. Republicans have blocked Democratic efforts to mandate more conservation and jump-start renewable sources; Democrats have sidelined Republican efforts to allow more domestic production.

The energy bill President Bush signed last summer is a dreary monument to this politics of subtraction: Though the legislation contained some modestly beneficial provisions (mostly tax breaks to encourage conservation), no one imagined that it represented a response proportionate to the problem.

The latest long-term Department of Energy projections, released after Bush signed the bill, forecast that in 20 years, America’s reliance on foreign oil will be slightly greater than today.

The same discouraging tendencies were evident in last week’s eruption of Washington speeches about the pain at the pump.

Congressional Democrats lined up like kids whacking a pinata to swing at the oil industry. Some of their complaints seemed overwrought. Others landed more powerfully: It is absurd to shower the oil companies with billions in tax breaks, as last year’s energy bill did, while they are swimming in record profits.

But it’s hardly a profile in courage for Democrats to point fingers at oil executives. In each of the last six elections, oil and gas companies directed at least three-fourths of their federal campaign contributions to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Democrats seemed much less enthusiastic about confronting a constituency more important in their coalition: the millions of unionized workers employed by the Big Three domestic auto companies.

Conspicuously absent in the proposals Democrats released for responding to soaring prices was the most effective step Washington could take to protect Americans from rising fuel costs and reduce dependence on foreign oil: mandating that the auto companies significantly improve the fuel economy of their cars and trucks.

The federal government hasn’t required the auto companies to improve the fuel economy of passenger cars since 1989, when the current 27.5 miles-per-gallon standard went into effect. Since then, Washington has modestly increased the requirements for light trucks and sport utility vehicles (most recently earlier this year). But mileage standards for trucks and SUVs remain much lower than the requirements for cars. And with more Americans buying those behemoths, the average fuel economy of the vehicles on America’s roads hasn’t improved since the mid-1980s.

Most Republicans, constrained by an ideological resistance to federal regulation, have always opposed tougher mandates. But achieving better fuel economy was once a passion of Democrats. In 1990, 42 of the Senate’s 55 Democrats -- about three-fourths -- voted to require automakers to reach 40 mpg by 2001. That bill drew 57 votes overall, but failed amid opposition from President George H.W. Bush and a Republican-led filibuster.

Under pressure from the auto companies and auto workers, Democrats have retreated ever since. President Clinton didn’t seriously try to raise fuel economy standards. Last year, a proposal from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to require a 40-mpg average for cars by 2016 drew just 28 votes; only about half of the Senate’s 44 Democrats voted yes. Those voting no included every Senate Democrat considering a 2008 presidential bid.

The collapse of the fuel economy movement captures the real problem in the energy debate. It isn’t a shortage of good ideas; it’s a refusal to accept the political risks that could advance those ideas.

After initially emphasizing drilling, even Bush is edging toward a broader strategy. He’s proposed more funding for alternative fuels, and last week he asked for administrative authority to raise fuel economy standards. “This country must ... diversify away from the hydrocarbon economy,” he now insists.

But Bush still rejects the steps that could most accelerate such a transformation, such as statutory increases in fuel economy, requirements for utilities to generate more electricity from renewable energy, and mandated limits on the emissions of carbon dioxide -- which would benefit cleaner alternatives to coal and oil. Small-government ideology and Big Energy loyalties still cramp his thinking.

For all the howling from Washington, energy policy will remain stuck in neutral until both parties confront their supporters to construct a grand bargain of more domestic production, greater conservation and more focus on alternative energy.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has proposed one step toward such an agreement: a deal in which auto makers would accept higher fuel economy standards in return for public help with their crushing pension and healthcare costs.

A comprehensive response might also tie a short-term increase in domestic oil and gas production to steps (such as carbon-emission limits) aimed at speeding a long-term shift toward cleaner energy sources.

There’s not much politicians can do about the current price shock. Their job is to think in fresh and flexible ways about reducing America’s vulnerability to the next one.