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Has the Energy Bill Lost its Steam?

September 12, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

Remember the comprehensive energy bills that the House and Senate passed earlier this summer? Well, that may have been the last we’ll see of them for a while. The bills are waiting to be reconciled by a conference committee, but all odds are stacked against that actually happening. The New York Times today has this rundown of the many obstacles that the bills face:

>Democratic leaders in both chambers have signaled that conference committee members are unlikely to be named until late October, at the earliest. Others suggested that leaders may try to resolve the differences in the bills without convening a conference, which would create other problems, including the threat of a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
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>Although Democratic leaders proclaimed energy a top legislative priority last January, the issue competes with Iraq, appropriations, financial market turmoil and product safety for room on Congress’s fall calendar.
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>The Senate passed its energy bill on June 21; the House passed its on Aug. 4. The most significant provisions include increasing automobile fuel-efficiency standards to a fleet average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, compared to 27.5 m.p.g. today. The standard for light trucks is 20.7 m.p.g. Another section would require utilities to generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
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>The mileage standard appears just in the Senate bill, having been squelched in the House by the opposition of Representative John D. Dingell, the powerful Democrat from Michigan. The mandate for renewable power is just in the House bill, having failed in the Senate.
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>Ordinarily, House and Senate leaders appoint conferees to reconcile bills. But because the Senate and House passed entirely different bills, not simply different versions, one or both chambers will have to pass the other’s bill before it can be “conferenced.”
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>An aide to Speaker Nancy Pelosi said staff members were working to fashion a Senate bill to match the House version.
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>Senator Richard J. Durban of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, said Republicans were threatening to block the appointment of conferees or to amend the bill to eliminate provisions they did not like, including billions of dollars in new taxes on the oil industry.
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>President Bush has threatened to veto the House bill, which he says does not have enough incentives for domestic energy production, and the Senate bill because it has penalties for price gouging by the oil industry.

If Congress fails to pass an energy bill, there will be reasons to believe it was because lawmakers and the President put the interests of the utilities and auto industries over America’s interests in clean and independent energy. The industries are out lobbying hard in Washington. And if you look at the campaign contribution figures for the electric utilities industry, it’s pretty easy to draw the conclusion that there is a quid pro quo arrangement with the Republicans who are threatening to block this bill.

There is, of course, more to the story. For example, check out Dingell’s funders. He gets most of his money from General Motors and Ford and he’s also “the powerful Democrat” who squelched the mileage standard provision in the House. But, Dingell represents Detroit, and what affects the auto industry also very much affects the lives of everyone who lives there. Dingell, here, is just doing his job, and he probably would do the same thing if there was no money involved — that is, if his reelection campaigns were based strictly on his merits as a representative.

That’s harder to say about the Republican lawmakers who take money from electric utilities and oppose this bill. It’s not clear what they would do without the money — there are possible economic arguments against to be made against requiring utilities to use more renewables. Therein lies a good example of one of the strengths holding together the connection between money and politics: because of the unique sophistic nature of politicians, nothing can really be proven short of outright bribery.

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