Energy Policy and Congress

12/19/2007 | By Lew Tagliaferre

There is an ongoing attempt in Congress to create yet another federal energy policy; yet, the one passed in 2005 has hardly been implemented. The details of this one are not firm because the House and Senate versions are different from each other and will need to be reconciled in a conference committee. In addition, the President does not like much of either version and has said that he would veto the final bill unless several provisions are changed more to his liking.

Apparently, among the contentious issues are mandating higher fuel-efficiency targets for auto mileage for the first time in 30 years, supporting the production of ethanol as a substitute for gasoline, and requiring that more renewable fuels be imposed upon electric utilities. All of these measures would impact your bottom line (as well as the profits of oil and gas producers, and so their lobbying efforts have been heard and accepted by the White House). The Senate failed to overcome a threatened filibuster by a 59-40 vote, but passed a watered-down version that goes back to the House. Under the Senate rules of filibuster, there is zero possibility that any bill that is not acceptable to the President will get to his desk; it might be useful to review the filibuster rule for your understanding.

According to its description posted on Wikipedia, “filibuster” has roots going back through British, Spanish, French, and Dutch origins. The filibuster is a tactic used by the minority party in the Senate to defeat bills and motions by prolonging debate indefinitely. A filibuster may entail long speeches, procedural motions, and an extensive series of proposed amendments. In effect, it tables the bill by talking it to death and stops any action toward a vote. Its history is pretty interesting.

The U.S. Constitution, (Article I, Section 5) authorizes the Senate to make its own rules of conduct. Presently, there are 44 of them. During the very first session in 1789, the Senate adopted a rule to “move the previous question” to end debate and proceed to a vote. This rule was abandoned in 1806 after arguments posed by Aaron Burr. Because the Senate created no alternative mechanism for terminating debate, the filibuster became an option for delay and blocking of floor votes almost immediately, but it remained only a theoretical option until 1841. Then, the Democratic minority tried to block a bank bill favored by the Whig majority by using this parliamentary tactic. In 1917, a new rule allowing for ending a filibuster and proceeding to vote by “cloture” was adopted by the Democratic Senate at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson. From 1917 to 1949, the requirement for cloture was two-thirds of those voting. After a series of filibusters led by Southern Democrats in the 1960s over civil-rights legislation, the Democrat-controlled Senate revised its cloture rule in 1975 so that 60 Senators were required to limit debate.

Since Senate Democrats presently possess only a bare majority of 51 votes, it takes nine Republicans to vote for cloture to end debate and move a bill to a full Senate vote. Obviously, the President controls the Republicans. While rules of the Senate may be suspended by “unanimous consent,” neither party has been willing to relinquish its right to filibuster the opposition. The present 110th Congress broke the record for filibuster cloture votes, topping 70 as of Nov. 15, 2007. So, the filibuster (or the threat of a filibuster) remains an important political tactic that allows a minority party to prevent legislation of any kind since a vote in the Senate is required to pass all bills. The end result of this brief digression is that no energy bill is likely to get to the White House without the approval of the President, which leads to an interesting question: What other energy-policy options are there?

I am glad you asked. It turns out there is such a plan. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one of more than 100 so-called independent agencies that report directly to the White House, has released its latest report for the ongoing National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency Vision for 2025. It was developed by an ad-hoc committee composed of 100 organizations among energy stakeholders chaired by Marsha H. Smith, commissioner of the Idaho Public Utilities Commission and president-elect of the National Association of Utility Regulatory Commissioners, along with James E. Rogers, chair, president, and CEO at Duke Energy. It is more than amazing that 100 divergent groups could reach an agreement in this report, while the U.S. Senate is stymied on energy policy by political maneuvering to the point of deadlock. The co-chairs state in their introduction: “This vision outlines what we consider [to be] 10 key implementation goals, as well as the steps we need to take to achieve them. It is a framework for changing our course on energy efficiency.” (The full, 82-page report is available online.)

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