Big energy measures to slide past 2012
The Hill’s impasse on energy policy gives the whip hand to the Obama administration. | AP Photos
The roster of unfinished business from this Congress is legion: Lawmakers have failed to pass measures responding to last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill — the worst such disaster in U.S. history — or to act on mine safety legislation despite the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia.
Also still on ice: GOP-backed proposals to slap down Obama administration energy and environmental policies, a T. Boone Pickens-backed plan to boost natural gas vehicles and more than a dozen bipartisan bills on issues like hydropower, nuclear energy, and oil and gas reserve inventories, which have cleared a key Senate committee.
Blame goes in every direction for the paralysis, which contrasts with a spate of energy legislation enacted during the latter years of the George W. Bush administration. But nobody seems able to find a way out.
House Republicans say Senate Democrats haven’t allowed votes on their bills aimed at reining in agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Democrats counter that the GOP game plan is more ideological posturing than compromise.
What will it take to change the dynamic? “It’ll require an epiphany on their part,” Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said of the GOP.
Among their few accomplishments this year, lawmakers reached a deal last week on pipeline safety legislation, a response to a California explosion that killed eight people in 2010.
But largely, the Hill’s impasse on energy policy has given the whip hand to the Obama administration, which has taken the lead in rolling out new offshore drilling oversight regulations, higher fuel efficiency standards and EPA rules covering issues including greenhouse gases, utilities and industrial manufacturers — along with other moves that have brought mockery from Republicans.
Congressional leaders started out the year promising big things. And they delivered, at least in generating partisan talking points.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) secured passage in his chamber on a suite of energy proposals and industry-backed rebukes to EPA rules. Along the way, Republicans earned some Democratic backing, as well as staunch White House opposition. Boehner’s latest move would force the administration to speed up its decision on the Keystone XL pipeline as part of a year-end deal on extending the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance. But President Barack Obama has threatened to reject the idea.
Across the rotunda, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had pledged to debate energy bills before Memorial Day. After he missed that target, Democratic leaders plotted for action during a jobs agenda blitz in the fall. Democrats, for their part, blame Senate Republicans for obstructing their agenda.
The lack of floor action isn’t due to a lack of ideas. Democrats never introduced a bill on Obama’s biggest energy-themed proposal from this year’s State of the Union, which called for 80 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from clean-energy sources by 2035. Also sitting on the shelf are 15 narrowly tailored energy bills that passed with bipartisan support from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“It’s kind of like a legislative portrait gallery,” former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said of the panel’s accomplishments. “It’s more exhibit than anything else. They look good, but they’re not leaving the building.”
Energy and the environment were once an area where regional disparities often trumped partisanship, but 2011 saw the continuation of the recent trend in which gridlock trumped progress on big-ticket policy items.