Democrats Sputtering on Energy

Democrats Sputtering on Energy

By Gary Andres - July 17, 2008

If congressional obstruction were gasoline, Americans would be awash in energy. The House Democratic leadership's gambit to protect their environmental special-interest group friends is both bold and risky. And as their constituents feel the pain at the pump, rank-and-file Democrats may face gushers of opposition at the polls this November. The gas shock of 2008 has not generated any new energy, but it has produced gallons of missed opportunity.

The current energy crisis has three implications on Capitol Hill that deserve mention. First, rank-and-file Democrats are increasingly nervous that their leadership is exposing them to extreme political risk. Second, Republicans are more unified and enthusiastic about this issue than any other since losing the majority in 2006. Third, the ongoing congressional bickering over energy deepens voter cynicism and disapproval of Congress - creating both missed opportunities for the Democratic majority and new chances for the Republican Party in an otherwise barren and hostile political environment.

The House majority leadership has pulled out all the stops to block votes on measures aimed at increasing domestic supply. The entire appropriations process has virtually ground to a halt because of Democratic leadership concerns that Republicans might offer amendments aimed at expanding energy resources. The majority has canceled markups in committee and restricted the types of bills the House considers, using its considerable procedural power to exclude amendments and other legislative ideas from consideration.

All of these efforts are aimed at blocking one thing: congress working its will. Lawmakers could come together on legislative proposals aimed at more domestic production, expanding refining capacity and investing in renewable resources. But these days, the House is more likely to name a post office than pass energy legislation. It is a pattern that reinforces Americans' worst stereotypes about the institution.

House Republicans feel emboldened by their successes so far. "This is the most unified and energized I have seen our members all year," a senior Republican leadership aide told me.

The House Democratic leadership is making a common error: failing to produce legislative achievement by compromising with the minority. In today's polarized environment on Capitol Hill, party politics is a zero sum game. If Republicans develop a popular new idea, Democrats bury it. The notion of sharing political accomplishment is not in the congressional leadership's lexicon. A former Democratic senator once told me, "Party leadership now approaches legislation like the Super Bowl; there's only winners and losers." Lawmakers found a model for legislative success earlier this year with the bipartisan economic stimulus legislation. The economy needed a boost; Congress came together to do what it could. If Democrats reached out and repeated this pattern several more times - on issues such as energy, for example, voters would take notice. That would boost congressional popularity and probably solidify the Democratic majority.

Democrats are starting to talk more about domestic production, but it sounds more like a buffer against blame than a bipartisan solution. This week, the House may consider Democratic legislation to expedite production in the National Petroleum Reserve - an area of Alaska where drilling is already approved - as well as a plan to force oil companies to "lose" leases they don't use and possibly some other minor measures. Yet all these ideas have two things in common: Republicans did not dream them up, and they would do little if anything to address our nation's energy problems.

Congressional rules and procedures provide many ways for the minority to frustrate the majority's ability to pass these superficial measures that would not address our nation's energy needs. So the default is a stalemate until Democrats decide they are willing to confront the energy problems and their environmental-interest-group supporters. The House majority appears either unwilling or unable to do this - leading to continuing declines in approval. It also means nervous rank-and-file Democrats have a tough time explaining how their leadership's obsession with scuttling Republican legislative ideas eases the pain at the pump.

Taken together, these actions send a clear message to voters: Congress is dysfunctional and more interested in accommodating narrow, private interests or partisan aspirations than coming together to address the big problems of the day. Circumstances rarely provide lawmakers with a chance to address the desires of a focused public. Energy policy does just that - giving the majority a chance to rise above expected patterns of partisanship. Good-faith compromise could help refill the tanks of public confidence. So far, the House Democratic leadership is running on empty.

Gary Andres, who served in the first Bush administration, is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.

Gary Andres

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