Politics & Policy

A Dead-Letter Energy Bill?

Democrats may be pushing doomed energy legislation in order to brand Republicans as obstructionists.

Judging from the previous remarks of key Senate Democrats, Senate majority leader Harry Reid isn’t likely to get enough votes for the energy bill he unveiled this week. Even without carbon caps or renewable-energy mandates on utility companies, Reid’s bill is too much of a job-killer to pass.

The sticking point is a provision of the bill that would eliminate all liability caps on damages from oil spills, a good idea in theory that in practice would drive many small oil companies out of business. Sens. Mary Landrieu (D., La.) and Mark Begich (D., Alaska), among others, have expressed opposition to lifting the cap, and Reid probably cannot pass a bill without their votes. This raises the question: Do the Democrats actually want to pass an energy bill?

Signs point to no. First, Landrieu and Begich have made their opposition to lifting the cap obvious. At a Senate Energy Committee hearing in May, Senator Landrieu said, “With all due respect to [my colleagues who] are calling for unlimited liability, it will put out of reach the possibility for insurance, which is extremely important for this and any industry to have to operate.”

The Democrats then floated the idea of raising the cap from $75 million to $10 billion. Senator Begich said in an interview that he thought “that might be too high.” Begich added, “We should examine it, and I think that is what Senator Murkowski is attempting to do here, is try to examine the right mix here.”

Begich was referring to a GOP alternative put together by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), ranking member on the Senate Energy Committee. Murkowski’s plan would have based federal liability limits on site- and company-specific factors such as water depth, safety record, proximity to emergency response, and well pressure. Perhaps not as strict a policy as the Democrats wanted, but in the same ballpark, and with the benefit of being able to attract support from key Senate Democrats and Republicans who wanted to reform oil-spill liability but in a way that protected jobs in their states.

Reid settled on a different strategy — a political one. He put forward a bill that eliminated the $10 billion cap entirely, even though that likely dooms the bill’s chances. “They’re hoping it will be defeated,” says a GOP Senate aide who works on energy issues. “They have the talking points ready about how it’s the Republicans’ fault. But this is going to be a little bit harder for them to put on the Republicans when we had an alternative bill they rejected out of hand.”

The aide added, “It’s election season. We understand.”

To flesh out the Democrats’ political strategy a bit, imagine a Democrat saying the following: “We dropped cap-and-trade. Then we dropped the renewable-energy standard. We bent over backward to reach a compromise. But the obstructionist Republicans are just too deep in the pocket of Big Oil. We couldn’t even get them to vote for a bill addressing the effects of the Gulf oil spill.”

Missing from that speech are all the Democrats who opposed the measures every step of the way: Democrats such as Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who said that cap-and-trade would cost jobs in his state, and Max Baucus of Montana, who said that the Democrats’ maneuvers on oil-spill liability were more about messaging than getting the policy right. Missing also is the conclusion that a reasonable person might draw from the Democratic leadership’s retreat on energy, which is that it indicates just how radical its agenda was in the first place.

Reid’s strategy on energy indicates something else: With each successive legislative victory the Democrats have achieved, they’ve seen their standing in the polls take a hit. Maybe they’ve decided that, as far as politics are concerned, if success isn’t working, try failure.

— Stephen Spruiell is a National Review Online staff reporter.

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