The two House committees most involved in the nation’s energy policy have had a jam-packed agenda over the past three months. They’ve held a total of 30 sessions on gasoline prices, offshore drilling, climate-change rules, energy spending, and oversight of the government’s energy and environment agencies.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee has already sent a bill to gut the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate-change rules to the House floor, where it passed 255-172. The Natural Resources Committee has approved three bills to expand offshore drilling that are scheduled to reach the full House next month.
Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., are just getting started. In the coming months, they’re planning additional hearings and bills, even though Republicans know that most of the measures have little chance of passing in the Democratic-controlled Senate and no chance of surviving on President Obama’s desk. But turning bills into laws isn’t really the point.
The panels are serving as springboards for a political message that GOP leaders believe will be one of the most effective in helping them to gain ground in the 2012 elections: blaming Democrats for high gas prices and overzealous environmental regulations.
Committee hearings present ideal forums for Republicans to frame their talking points. Campaign operatives then pluck out quotes to amplify the GOP’s position in the national debate via a flurry of press releases, webcasts, and ads, not to mention news reports, television appearances, and floor speeches.
Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., who chairs Energy and Commerce’s Energy and Power Subcommittee, told National Journal that his goal is to use the hearings to raise the visibility of such issues as dismantling climate-changes rules. “We’re going to pass a lot of things over here,” he said. “We’re going to elevate these issues … into the public eye, and people are going to be much more aware of it as we go into the 2012 election year. The natural consequence of the hearings is that … when candidates … are out there running, they’re going to talk about it.”
Among the campaign-ready sound bites produced by committee activities were Upton’s remarks during his hearing on undoing EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. “Manufacturing jobs will leave this country unless EPA is stopped,” he charged. “EPA’s agenda will boost the price at the pump and drive up electricity bills. It’ll make farming cost more and hike prices of food.”
Upton called in experts and advocates to testify that Obama’s energy policies are hurting voters in swing states. Mike Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association, told the committee, “We are opposed to this new regulatory onslaught, which not only appears designed to force coal out of business but also to transfer massive amounts of wealth to some New England and West Coast states.”
The chairman also solicited testimony from Louisiana State University professor Joseph Morton, who said that Obama’s slow pace of resuming drilling in the Gulf of Mexico may have cost more than 13,000 jobs and $1.1 billion in lost wages. Upton asked Valero and other oil companies to submit letters describing how EPA’s climate-change rules would hurt them.
Those witness and industry quotes, along with many others, were then trumpeted in National Republican Congressional Committee press releases. GOP strategists describe such committee records as tremendously helpful when crafting news releases and attack ads—the Upton EPA hearings, they said, gave them valuable ammunition as they go after vulnerable Democrats in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
Although Republicans have to be careful not to overreach (the public doesn’t hold Big Oil in much more regard than it does Congress), high gas prices give them an opportunity to paint Democrats as environmental extremists. Costlier gas often generates more public support for drilling, even though the Energy Information Administration has issued studies showing that increasing domestic offshore drilling wouldn’t affect gasoline prices for at least a decade, and even then the difference would be about 3 cents a gallon.
On March 21, the NRCC launched a television ad attacking Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the former chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, who opposes Hastings’s drilling bills and who last year moved a measure to increase safety and environmental regulations for offshore drilling. Strategists say that more such ads are coming soon—and that they may have their genesis in further committee action on drilling.
To be sure, some Republicans bristle at the suggestion that all this activity is more about politics than policy. “I simply disagree with your premise,” Michael Steel, the spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, responded in an e-mail to NJ. “Our goal is to do everything possible to increase the supply of American energy to lower costs, create jobs, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”
Steel and others pointed out that the last time Republicans successfully harnessed the energy message—during the summer of “drill, baby, drill” in 2008—the pressure eventually forced the Democratic-led Congress to overturn a two-decade ban on offshore drilling—although the GOP failed to take the White House or Congress.
This time around, they hope to do both; but many Republicans say they’re happy to wait for an energy bill if an energy message can first help them win in 2012.
This article appears in the April 23, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.