Politics & Policy

Doing It Right in the House

The Republican energy offensive.

For the first time in a while, House Republicans are on the offense on an issue of national importance: removing obstacles to the production of more American energy.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey abruptly shut down his committee indefinitely rather than allow Republicans to offer an amendment to open more areas to drilling for new sources of oil and natural gas. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid concur. According to the New York Times, she and Reid “appear intent on holding the line against calls to approve drilling in areas now off limits.”

Obey fears that the amendment, by drilling advocate Rep. John Peterson (R., Penn.), would win. As many as eight of the committee’s Democrats have supported similar amendments in the past, while only a couple of the committee’s Republicans (who represent well-heeled suburban districts) have stood with the environmental lobby.

Democratic defections, moreover, likely would spread beyond the Appropriations Committee. A careful analysis of previous floor votes on a wide array of energy production issues indicates that as many as 40 House Democrats would join the overwhelming majority of House Republicans in support of an agenda to increase American energy production dramatically.

The list of pro-energy House Democrats extends beyond the usual suspects who represent energy-producing districts in the oil and gas states. Veteran lawmakers such as Reps. John Murtha (D., Penn.), Ike Skelton (D., Mo.), Sanford Bishop (D., Ga.), Paul Kanjorski (D., Penn.), and Alan Mollohan (D., W.V.), for example, have supported drilling.

And, the public’s emerging consensus on behalf of more drilling is making converts out of previously “green” lawmakers. Recently, freshman Rep. Steve Kagen (D., Wisc.), who previously voted the environmental line, got religion. “Drill for new oil across America,” he wrote in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. On the Republican side, Maryland conservative Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, who has also opposed drilling, recently co-sponsored a plan to open up the vast oil and gas resources under the Alaskan Coastal Plain for exploration and development.

The pressure on lawmakers to act is mounting. According to the latest Washington Post survey, the high price of gas and the related issue of the economy now rank first and second as the most important issues on voters’ minds, ahead of Iraq, health care and global warming. And a recent survey by Pew must have set off political alarm bells in Democratic circles. Pew found that “an increasing proportion [of Americans] says that developing new sources of energy — rather than protecting the environment — is the more important national priority.” The rise in support for energy exploration, moreover, was most pronounced among voter groups deemed pivotal in the upcoming elections — women, college graduates, Independents, liberals and younger voters aged 18-29.

But what can Capitol Hill Republicans do? After all, they are a minority in both chambers.

True, they stand on the right side of a paramount policy issue. And most Democrats are stuck between their unyielding political base, which opposes any policy that would permit the production of more American fossil fuels, and the sentiments of their voters. Their ranks, moreover, are split: There are enough pro-energy Democrats (and a diminishing number of anti-energy Republicans) to form a strong bipartisan majority should these issues actually reach the House floor.

But not only has Pelosi decreed that legislative proposals to allow for the production of American energy — whether it’s oil and natural gas offshore or in Alaska, new nuclear plants, oil shale from Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming, or promising coal-to-liquid technology — won’t see the light of day on the House floor. She has even fallen into the trap of allowing this to become a test of her leadership. Senior House Democrats understand this and will be reluctant to challenge her. The New York Times reported that Pelosi informed her leadership team that “a decision to relent on the drilling ban would amount to capitulation to Republicans and the White House, and that she was having none of it.” Pelosi, the Times added, “can prevent a vote on expanded drilling from reaching the floor.”

Oh, really? A procedural device is available to House minorities when the majority locks up popular legislation that could command a majority if given a chance on the House floor. It’s called a discharge petition.

A discharge petition is a procedural way for disgruntled members to release a bill from legislative limbo and force the entire House to consider it. Should a majority of members (218) sign one, the legislation in question is “discharged” from the committee of jurisdiction and brought immediately to the floor, debated, and voted on. Short of actual floor votes, signing a discharge petition is the most powerful (and potentially meaningful) tool available to a besieged legislative minority.

Not surprisingly, discharge petitions rarely attract the required 218 signatures. House speakers and majority leaders view them the same way vampires view crosses. When members of the majority party sign one, it’s viewed as an act of betrayal worthy of harsh disciplinary measures and a guaranteed end to that member’s advancement in the House.

Quietly, in recent weeks House Republican leaders have adopted precisely this strategy. Rank-and-file Republicans have been filing one discharge petition per week (five thus far), demanding floor action on a far-reaching energy agenda. The agenda includes bills to construct new oil refineries; drill for oil and natural gas offshore as well as on a tiny portion of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge; repeal regulations that needlessly increase the price of gasoline; produce energy from alternative sources such as oil shale, tar sands and coal-to-liquid; and explore the next generation of oil and natural gas fields in deep-sea regions far off our coasts.

With little media coverage, and lacking the visible support of business groups, conservative organizations or talk radio, these petitions have nevertheless garnered as many as 153 signatures, with one Democrat — Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D., Hawaii) — even risking the wrath of his leadership by signing on.

An informal head count suggests there are an additional 75 to 100 House members, including those 40 Democrats, who, based on their previous support for proposals to increase American energy production, could be open to signing these petitions, thereby pushing the number of signatures over the required 218.

Should the conservative media, the conservative movement, and, yes, the president (his soapbox still carries weight) catch on to this strategy, pressure would increase on pro-energy lawmakers to sign on. Voters would learn that the Speaker’s word isn’t final. And we just might get a real debate on the merits of producing more American energy.

Michael G. Franc is vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation.

Editor’s note: This piece has been corrected since posting.


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