In laying the groundwork this week for a possible independent run for the White House, Michael Bloomberg has been making the case that "Washington is sinking into a swamp of dysfunction."
Exhibit A in his argument should be the debate currently underway in the Senate over raising fuel efficiency standards for the auto industry. It's a perfect example of the fetid D.C. bog at its most dysfunctional.
Raising CAFE standards should be a no-brainer. It's the fastest and most efficient way to reduce our dependence on oil -- especially foreign oil. An increase of just 3 mpg nationwide would save one million barrels of oil per day. But for close to 25 years, the U.S. auto industry and its allies in Congress have repeatedly fought back any and all efforts to raise mileage standards.
That's right, despite all that has happened in the last quarter century in terms of the environment and shifting world politics, the mileage requirement for cars, truck, and SUVs hasn't changed a lick since A Flock of Seagulls was a hot band and Rubik's Cubes were all the rage. Passenger cars are still required to get just 27.5 miles per gallon, while SUVs and light trucks only have to get 21 mpg.
But due to mounting concern over climate change, our dependence on Middle East oil, and skyrocketing gas prices, the political wind has at long last shifted, and an increase in fuel standards is an idea whose time has finally come -- embraced not just by environmentalists but by groups like SAFE, a coalition of top corporate and military leaders that see this as a foreign policy issue.
Even President Bush -- an oilman who has spent the last six and a half years turning the White House into a full-service fueling station for Big Oil -- has jumped on the CAFE bandwagon and is supporting a proposal that would require both cars and trucks to reach 35 miles a gallon by 2020.
To put this modest increase into perspective, automakers have already managed to comply with much tougher mileage standards all over the world, including 46 mpg in Japan and 44 mpg in Europe. And that is what they are doing today, not 13 years from now.
Nevertheless, Detroit is still fighting progress tooth and nail. Automakers originally were sticking to their guns and pushing for no increase at all but, after finally seeing the writing on the wall, are now desperately trying to water down the already watered down CAFE provision in the energy bill currently under debate. And they are getting help from a group of lawmakers that includes Michigan's two Democratic Senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow. They are pushing a compromise amendment that would require cars to get 36 mpg by 2022, while allowing trucks and SUVs to continue lagging behind, required only to get 30 mpg by 2025.
It's modern politics at its worst. Instead of embracing a big idea that is long overdue and seizing a moment of national consensus on one of the biggest issues of the day -- energy independence -- Levin, Stabenow, and their cohorts are giving in to the lobbyists and the special interests that have defined Washington for decades now. It should come as no surprise that Levin and Stabenow have been major recipients of auto industry largess -- Levin taking in $104,000 from Big Auto since 2001, and Stabenow pocketing over $115,000 from automakers, auto dealers, and auto worker unions.
According to Stabenow, the proposed mileage increase "doesn't do anything to help us." Which makes me wonder: which "us" is she referring to -- the American people or the auto industry?
Either way, she's dead wrong. It goes without saying that raising fuel standards would be good for the American people. (As Southwest Airlines chairman Herb Kelleher, a member of SAFE, put it: "We concluded that the overall dependence of the United States on oil was a great vulnerability, and by continuing it we were helping the people who opposed us.") But it would also be good for Detroit.
For far too long, Washington has been an enabler of the auto industry's refusal to get with the times. Detroit missed the boat on hybrid technology and so many other innovations because, instead of forcing auto makers into corporate rehab to clean up their act, our leaders in Washington have acted as a dysfunctional parent -- not only turning a blind eye to Detroit's wild ways but actively encouraging it by creating outrageous loopholes like the one that allows buyers of extra-large gas-guzzling SUVs to take extra-large deductions on their taxes. It would be like Lindsay Lohan's mom leaving a vial of crack on her daughter's pillow at night.
Washington needs to adopt a zero tolerance policy for Detroit -- and for business-as-usual political maneuvers like the one Levin and Stabenow are attempting.
It's behavior like this that could fuel a "drain the swamp" candidacy like Bloomberg's.
UPDATE: So Levin, Stabenow, and the auto industry's efforts to water down the increase in CAFE standards failed. Late last night, the Senate passed a comprehensive energy bill that included the first significant increase in fuel efficiency standards in 24 years. The measure for the first time puts SUVs, van, and light trucks under the same regulation as passenger cars. An automaker's entire fleet will have to average 35 mpg by 2020 -- an overall increase of 40 percent (though still lagging behind the standards already in place in much of the world). John Kerry, a longtime proponent of raising mileage standards, called the legislation "a great step toward addressing record gas prices, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and breaking the stranglehold of foreign oil." Of course, the House -- where Big Auto's best pal John Dingell, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee has, long been a human roadblock to raising mileage standards -- has yet to begin debate on its energy package, so it's way too early to be declaring victory. It may be "a great step," but it's all-but-guaranteed that Detroit will continuing trying to trip up this legislation before it becomes law.
The ongoing debate over raising fuel efficiency standards is a perfect example of Washington at its most dysfunctional.