CQ TODAY ONLINE NEWS
April 17, 2012 – 12:29 a.m.
House GOP Turns Attention to Energy Issues
By Richard E. Cohen, CQ Staff
House Republicans are stepping up their focus on energy exploration as part of their effort to make higher gasoline prices a major issue in their campaign against President Obama and his economic policies.
Republicans will kick off their effort Tuesday when the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power is scheduled to consider two bills designed to ease environmental restrictions that Republicans contend increase gas prices.
One draft bill would defer for six months proposed regulations on motor vehicle emissions, refinery emissions and ozone standards, and another draft measure would require increased energy production on federal lands to replace any petroleum drawn from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
The expected House approval of these two measures would recycle similar House-passed bills that are sitting at the Senate’s doorstep, where there is little prospect for further action this year. Since last year, the House has passed at least five bills designed to increase energy exploration offshore or on public lands, or to reduce regulatory barriers to oil and gas drilling, according to a summary by Speaker
Boehner, who visited an oil rig in Midland, Texas last week, and other GOP leaders also have increased their criticism of the Obama administration’s energy policies.
Energy and Commerce Chairman
But the effort — which presumed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has joined — already faces a potential obstacle with gasoline prices having peaked in recent weeks, possibly blunting the majority’s effort to use the issue to build opposition to Obama’s economic and energy policies.
The GOP message also has been hampered by the House’s inability to advance Boehner’s signature proposal to reshape surface transportation programs by linking their financing to increased domestic energy production.
House leaders had said they needed more time to build support behind a five-year, $260 billion transportation bill (
The House is scheduled to take up the 90-day extension (
Democrats have answered Republican charges, citing increased domestic energy production in the past three years. At an April 4 hearing, lawmakers at a House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee said Wall Street “speculators” caused the price increase. Minority Leader
Democrats and other critics of the GOP strategy also counter that fuel prices are determined by broad international economic and political factors, which have little to do with domestic actions. They also say the public does not buy the Republican talking points.
House GOP Turns Attention to Energy Issues
“There is a positive story to be told about the economy and the country’s changing direction,” said Joshua Freed, vice president for clean energy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. He cited the increases in domestic energy production, including a surplus in natural gas supplies. Boehner’s recent criticisms have been “business as usual” and his “only options are oil and natural gas,” Freed said.
But former Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Phil English, who is now an economic policy adviser to Romney, said the GOP scored political points when gas prices soared above four dollars a gallon in 2008. He conceded, though, that the issue quickly faded in the face of the financial meltdown on Wall Street in the fall of that year.
Democrats’ references to increased production “cast them in the role of the rooster taking credit for the dawn,” English said in a recent interview. “The Romney campaign views the energy issue as a real positive. We will be hearing more about it.”
Public opinion polls show opportunities for Republicans. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted from April 5 to April 8 showed that 62 percent of respondents disapproved of how Obama is handling gas prices and only 28 percent approved; 50 percent strongly disapproved.
But the poll also revealed that slightly more respondents blamed the gas price increase on U.S. oil companies and on other oil-producing countries rather than Obama administration policies.
“If I were the Democrats, I would change the subject to Romney’s taxes,” said congressional scholar John J. Pitney Jr., a politics professor at Claremont-McKenna College. “People are unhappy with Obama’s management of energy. What matters is the price at the pump. It’s pretty basic politics for Republicans to talk about this. It would be malpractice if they failed to do so.”
Still, Pitney said Republicans should not expect the gas price debate to help any more than “at the margin,” though, he added, “a point or two can matter” in a close election.
Former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, who chaired the House Democratic Caucus, said that neither party should take the public for granted on gas prices or energy policy.
“The public hears all of the political rhetoric and doesn’t take it seriously,” Frost said. “Republicans have talked about energy, but they haven’t done much of anything. . . . Obama has tried to promote alternative sources and an ‘all of the above approach,’ but his policies have not always been consistent.”