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Harry Moroz

Things We’ve Lost in the Debate to “Lower” Gas Prices

With the Climate Security Act, the nation’s first real attempt to curb carbon emissions, a distant and evidently unpleasant memory, Congress has now resumed debate of how to increase the nation’s consumption of oil. Republicans have sacked the House of Representatives to pressure Speaker Pelosi to allow a vote on revoking the moratorium on offshore drilling. Alone in a darkened House chamber (at first) without C-SPAN or, well, legislative significance, their speeches have ranged from vitriolic to simply ludicrous (that is, in the words of The Economist). The Republicans and some in the press have tried hard to gin up the significance of the debate: Politico even ran a headline declaring that the 13-day (including weekends) debate has reached its “third week”.

The Democrats, for their part, held votes – their woeful conclusions foregone – under suspension rules on releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and forcing energy producers to use unexploited leases. So far, the legislative status quo has prevailed, while gas prices have fallen 20 cents a gallon in the last month.

Amidst the hubris and rhetorical skullduggery, a reasonable and even necessary piece of legislation was proposed, then swiftly killed by filibuster. Senator Bernie Sanders [I-VT] sponsored an infusion of funds to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides heating and cooling assistance to low-income households. Under the legislation, half the $2.5 billion in supplementary funds would be injected into the block grant portion of the program allocated to states based on need and the other half to the contingency fund portion that can be (and often is) tapped in a time of need.

The legislation responds to an 80% rise in home heating prices and a correspondent decline in the average LIHEAP grant, which has fallen from $349 to $305 per household in recent years. Facing LIHEAP funds that have not kept up with growing need and rising energy costs, many states will have to cut each household’s grant or reduce the number of households receiving assistance.

While LIHEAP certainly encourages energy use through subsidization, unlike both parties’ current proposals for reducing energy costs, LIHEAP would actually make energy affordable for those Americans who must in fact decide between heating (and cooling, especially for the elderly) their homes and making everyday purchases. Increased LIHEAP funds might even be an economic stimulus, freeing up funds for low-income households that would otherwise cut back their spending to afford home energy costs.

But Senate Republicans – even some who sponsored the bill – were intent upon blocking any legislation that did not include opening up offshore drilling. Senator Orrin Hatch [R-UT] called the $100 million that remain in LIHEAP’s emergency funds a “surplus” and referred to the legislation variously as a “shame”, a “sham”, and a “joke”. He even called on Democrats to make a choice between

the very well funded extreme anti-oil interests, or the poor, because on energy prices, there is no compromise between the two.

Fellow Senator James Inhofe [R-OK] said of the legislation:

I oppose it. In fact I don’t even think I’ll stay here for that vote

Most surprising, though, was the decision of Senator Judd Gregg [R-NH] to co-sponsor and then vote against the measure (a decision dissected by Mike Caulfield of Blue Hampshire). One might have even accused my above analysis of plagiarizing from a press release of Senator Gregg’s from mid-July released before his vote against cloture:

Low-income individuals, families and seniors should not be forced to choose between keeping their homes warm this winter and other basic necessities such as food and medicine. It is high time for Congress to take action to ensure that these critical funds [for LIHEAP] are available for states to distribute when they are needed.

Perhaps Congressional shenanigans are inevitable. But as the sudden outcropping of a war in the Caucasus should warn us, danger can often lurk close behind political machinations.

Just two months ago, debate on the Climate Security Act reminded Americans that their pain at the pump comes with a silver lining. Ever since, the debate on energy prices, which has blocked legitimate proposals for assistance and inflated useless pandering into a rebellious “protest” against the (wo)man, has endangered this progress.

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Posted at 9:50 AM, Aug 13, 2008 in Economy | Energy & Environment | Politics |
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