Program

Energy Policy: Waiting for Change

Point of View, by Congress Project Director Don Wolfensberger

Jul 01, 2005

Nothing better illustrates the difficulty of forging a consensus in Congress on a major problem than the issue of energy policy. I was a relatively junior legislative assistant in the House of Representatives when an energy crisis first hit the United States in the early 1970s, and then again late in the decade. The twin energy shocks of 1973 and 1979 produced long lines at the gas pumps and a driving public outraged by the shortages and fearful that a cartel of oil-producing countries might literally have us over a barrel.

It is often said that nothing focuses the mind of Congress more than an angry electorate, and that is true up to a point. But once an event (like long gas lines or electrical outages) fades, so too do the anger and attention it fed, and thus Congress's focus and determination to take meaningful action. Old forces once again take hold of the people's representatives, and the unum reverts to the pluribus as competing economic, regional, and political interests—not to mention turf-conscious congressional committees—duke it out to the death of any significant policy solution.

That's basically what I witnessed in the 70s on the energy issue, though there was no lack of legislative activity and bureaucratic box shuffling across the decade to give the appearance, at least, that Congress and the President were addressing the problem. One soon learns in politics that if appearances aren't everything, they're sure way ahead of whatever is second.

For us old-timers, the new flurry of activity in Washington over energy during the last several years is, as Yogi Berra put it, "déja vu all over again." The issues, the debating teams, and their arguments are the same: energy production versus conservation; energy-producing states versus energy-consuming states; the environmentalists versus the economic expansionists; and friends of fossil fuels versus advocates of alternative energy sources. If politics is the art of compromise, making national energy policy is abstract art gone wild—a messy, multihued, incoherent canvas of splatters, smears, splotches, and swirls signifying little.

It's easy to become cynical when you think you've seen it all before while little ever seems to get done. But then you realize that our system is working as intended by allowing this prolonged policy debate to play out with all interested parties at the table. The people are the ultimate stakeholders in this exercise and will get the kind of energy policy they deserve—at least until the next crisis comes along and they decide they might deserve better.