Washington Insider
Curbing fuel costs? It's déjà vu on Capitol Hill

By Rod Nofziger
Director of Government Affairs

With the summer driving season and the 2008 presidential campaign both well under way, the folks on Capitol Hill are once again training their sights on curbing high fuel prices and ensuring that the nation has adequate energy supplies – matters they know have seized the attention of Americans.

As one congressional aide recently told me, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Sky-high prices at the pump and record profits raked in by unrepentant oil companies seem to trigger yearly calls from Capitol Hill for investigations and oversight hearings. And, once again, representatives and senators are furiously introducing legislation that they believe – or at least hope voters believe – will curb fuel prices and deal with the many other problems arising from slim energy supplies.

Two years ago, when Republicans were still in control of the House and Senate, Congress passed the massive “Energy Policy Act of 2005,” which came to be known as EPACT or simply “the energy bill.” Many separate smaller bills and initiatives were cobbled together to create that legislation. Prices at the fuel pump were easily the primary issue driving the passage of EPACT.

Now, the Democratic leadership is taking a page from the Republicans’ playbook.

The Democrats plan to put together their own version of a comprehensive energy bill that they intend to bring up for consideration by the House sometime in mid-July.

Some smaller energy-related bills have already been approved by the House this year and congressional committees have already had numerous associated hearings on the topic.

Even though Democrats are now at the helm of both the House and Senate, some of the same energy-related goals that were focused on in 2005 are again receiving plenty of attention. These goals include curbing our dependence on foreign oil, combating price gouging and increasing the availability of alternative fuels.

In general, as political parties, Democrats and Republicans have traditionally had divergent views on matters linked with fuel production and usage, such as global warming and the environmental impact of increased domestic drilling.

However, this time around, not only is there a different political party in control, but there are also different individuals serving as congressional leaders.

The new committee leaders not only have the well-being of the country on their minds, but also the well-being of their home states and congressional districts to think about. They may agree with the overarching goals their predecessors included in EPACT in 2005, but they see different routes to attain those goals.

For example, in 2005, Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican, was serving as the chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Barton is from the oil-aligned state of Texas. He preferred to attack our dependence on foreign oil by empowering U.S.-based oil companies to increase domestic exploration and production. He also favored assisting American refineries in adding capacity or building new facilities.

In contrast, Rep. Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat who now chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, and Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat who now chairs the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, are both from districts with ample coal supplies. They see a need for significantly increasing the production of coal-to-liquid fuels and plan to repeal some of the oil-centered provisions of the 2005 energy act.

One way or another, Congress will be making another go at fuel prices and energy supplies this year. It is our job as Americans to try and steer them toward positive and effective solutions.