There may be bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill that the spike in gas prices could throttle the economy, but very little consensus appears to be forming on what to do about it, according to the latest National Journal Congressional Insiders Poll. Asked how to deal with high gas prices, there was almost no common ground between the two partisan camps: Almost all of the Republican members of Congress supported a reduction in restrictions on oil and natural gas production, which only a handful of Democrats backed. And while Democratic members overwhelmingly favored ending tax breaks for oil and gas producers, less than a third of the Republicans could sign on to that approach.
Democratic Congressional Insiders also favored increasing raising fuel-efficiency standards and boosting subsidies for electric and natural-gas-powered vehicles, but those options drew even less GOP support than repealing the energy tax breaks.
“Even the White House admits that ending oil subsidies won’t lower gas prices,” said one GOP Congressional Insider. “We have been here before,” said another Republican. “The sooner we start expanding drilling, the sooner the gas prices will come down.” Added a third, “When stable economies like U.S. signal the lock-up of energy resources; oil prices rise.”
Democrats were just as adamant that the country needed to focus on alternative energy sources. “With domestic oil and gas production already at record levels, it’s clear we need to move away from such heavy reliance on fossil fuels, oil and coal in particular,” said a Democratic Congressional Insider. “We can innovate our way out of our energy problems, but we can’t drill our way out of them.” Echoed another: “China’s growth will continue to drive oil prices up—time to cut subsidies to fossil fuel so alternatives have a better chance to compete.”
Recent huge oil company profits also prompted Democrats and even a few Republicans to consider ending tax breaks for the industry. “I am having a hard time justifying subsidies for oil companies or General Electric, which is why we need tax simplification,” said one GOP Congressional Insider. Added a Democrat, “Record oil company profits justify repeal of oil company tax breaks and should cause us to review oil drilling royalties on federal land.”
Some Democrats added that allowing oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to get to gas pumps would alleviate some of the upward pressure on prices. Likewise, one Republican suggested that tightening U.S. monetary policy could lower prices on commodities like oil and food.
The lack of consensus on what to do about rising gas prices today is a contrast to four years ago, when prices at the pump were setting new highs and a similar Congressional Insiders Poll was conducted in late May. In the 2007 survey, 95 percent of the Democratic Insiders and 57 percent of the GOP Insiders said they supported raising fuel-efficiency standards. And there was even more agreement on boosting subsidies for alternative fuel production, which was backed by 90 percent of the Democrats and 79 percent of the Republicans who responded to the survey. But then, as today, the two sides were strongly split over ending tax breaks for big oil companies and removing restrictions on domestic oil production.
Seven months later, in December, Congress passed and then President George W. Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Two of the leading features of that legislation were increasing fuel-economy standards for automobiles and mandating renewable fuel standards, which spur the production of biofuels like ethanol.
The National Journal Congressional Insiders Poll is a regular survey of Democratic and Republican members of Congress.
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This article appears in the May 9, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.