Washington, DC -- It's Bastille Day. It might be time for a new revolution. Or maybe we need another messiah, to drive the money changers from the temple of our republic.
Florida Senator Mel Martinez has decided to sell his state's soul -- its beaches --(along with Alabama's) to his colleague, Senator Pete Domenici from the beach-less state of New Mexico. Senator Bill Frist from Tennessee, another state without beaches, gets to announce the deal. Domenici will give away billions of dollars that belong to American taxpayers, including taxpayers in his own state, one of America's poorest. Martinez will allow drilling for oil and gas off the Florida coast in an area known as Lease Sale 181. Florida gets no money in this arrangement. It just offers up its beaches. Alabama, which shares the leased area with Florida, gets a little of the money that Americans in the 45 non-Gulf Coast states sacrifice as part of this deal. Most of the money, however, goes to Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi -- which don't appear to have any stake in this at all.
Welcome to Washington.
Here's what's really happening: Members of Congress from the Midwest have a lot of rural constituents upset about the price of natural gas. The congressional delegations from the Gulf Coast want more money from the Treasury. The oil and gas industry would like to turn all of America's public lands -- the coasts, the Arctic, the Rockies, you name it -- into oil and gas fields. And finally, the campaign committees for this fall's election, (the Republican side in particular), would like to raise lots of dollars from the oil and gas industry.
And every one of these players is afraid of the voters. The voters are smart. They know that the way to bring natural gas prices down is to be efficient. They know that it's a bad idea to drain the federal treasury. They know that Florida's, and California's, and Virginia's beaches, are too valuable to sacrifice to drilling muds and oil slicks. They have a strong gut feeling that the high prices they are paying are rigged and fixed, not market driven. They think Congress is listening to its contributors, not its constituents.
Congress, meanwhile, is playing "wink, wink, nudge, nudge." Martinez and Domenici agree on a bill which just might be able to pass the Senate -- because it appears to do something about high gas prices, gives the Gulf Coast states a huge windfall, and purports to protect part of the Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, so phony is the whole exercise that if you read Senator Frist's press release on the off-shore oil drilling deal you will notice that the words "offshore", "oil" and "drilling" never even appear. The huge revenue give-away to the Gulf Coast states is described as a "fiscally-responsible revenue-sharing system." A more realistic description of the politics crops up in one of the winners of this "quintessa"; namely, Mississippi, where the Biloxi Sun Herald calls the deal "Drilling for Dollars" and says it "could open up a vast swath of the Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil and gas drilling and generate a revenue windfall for Mississippi and other Gulf states."
But there's really not much in this Senate deal for Domenici, or Frist, or the Republican leadership. So why are they so excited about it? Because if this bill passes the Senate, it goes to conference with Representative Richard Pombo and the House. And Pombo made it clear, just after the "deal" was announced, that he had a very different "deal" in mind -- a bill which would, yes, drain the Treasury, but in addition to opening the Florida Gulf Coast to drilling, would also sacrifice the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington, and the entire Atlantic seaboard. The House bill can generate some serious campaign gifts for the fall.
Pombo himself illustrates the layers of deceit that constitute this wedding cake for the oil industry. Officially, he is against drilling off the California coast. Practically, he has spent most of this year trying to subvert the congressional moratorium which prevents such drilling. Now he claims that his bill will "protect" the California coast. But he simultaneously says that its opponents are, yes, anti-drilling!
Meanwhile, outside Washington, DC, there is reality. The latest Pew survey reports that 2-1, Americans understand that efficiency and conservation and the keys to America's energy future. And globally, on the eve of the G-8 Conference of world leaders, a new BBC poll showed that 81 percent of the public "see grave threats from the way the world currently produces and uses energy."
Which may explain why, in a recent Gallup survey, voters, 54%-38%, said they wanted to vote for a Democratic this fall.
Congress might consider, as a desperate last resort, doing the public's business, not their donors'. They might consider, as a kind of "Hail Mary pass" doing what they think is right, instead of what they think is lucrative. They could, for example, modernize the electrical grid, or find a way to bring on line the enormous stock of efficient, modern, gas-fired power plants that can't find customers, even though they could make cheaper and cleaner electricity, because politicians won't let them.
But then the Cubs might win the pennant.