The Oil Fix Congress Won't Touch

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BILL PUGLIANO / GETTY

Motorists wait in line to purchase discounted fuel, part of a gas restitution program to remedy price gouging

Members of Congress have been scrambling lately to tell Americans that there are no quick and easy fixes to high gas prices. "There is not a panacea of short-term solutions to the [gasoline] price situation today because it's a demand-driven price," said House Energy Committee chairman Joe Barton, Republican from Texas, at a news conference Wednesday. House Ways and Means committee member Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana concurred: "I don’t think there’s any magic political solution." And Congressman Adam Putnam of Florida, a member of the House Republican leadership, says that at a bipartisan House and Senate meeting on gas prices with President Bush on Wednesday, all the participants from both parties recognized that "there are very few things we can do immediately" to reduce the price of gas.

In fact, there's one obvious thing Congress and the President could do. But around Capitol Hill only a few lonely voices are willing to talk about it — most of them not for attribution. "You have to encourage people to conserve," says one Republican staffer.

Gasp. Tell Americans to drive less? Though a fractional reduction in driving across the country would dramatically reduce demand and prices, few things are more frightening to public officials, especially six months before an election, than telling Americans to conserve. Instantly, the image of Jimmy Carter in a cardigan on national television morosely telling Americans to turn down their thermostats appears before the lawmakers’ eyes. The country's current malaise and confrontation with Iran are already reminding Americans of those the dark days before Reagan’s Morning in America.

Not everybody, however, views conservation as such a taboo topic. The cantankerous Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa has made repeat appearances on CNBC this week to bark out a stern conservation message. "If everyone cut back their driving by 3% we’d have gasoline coming out of our ears!" he told viewers. But he's one of the few lawmakers willing to publicly encourage cutting back. The President's four-point plan to reduce gas prices includes no mention of encouraging personal conservation — even though he has in the past pushed measures that create incentives to do so like giving tax breaks for making energy conserving home improvements. And at Bush's meeting with lawmakers on Wednesday, "everybody listened to everyone else and then we left," says Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, but "the meeting was inconclusive in that we didn’t leave with any kind of action agenda,"

So for the moment, the only kind of "solutions" Americans are likely to see coming out of Washington are little more than political gestures. Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, a Republican in a close House race this November, sponsored a bill increasing the punishment for price gouging by oil companies — although few if any examples of price gouging have been discovered in the latest round of price hikes — and it sailed through the House. Asked whether gas prices might be reduced if Congress publicly encouraged people to conserve, one Wilson staffer replied, "I think you kind of have a natural solution: as prices go higher, there’s a natural trend by consumers to conserve." Translation: let the market, not us, be the messenger.

More of this kind of help is on the way. Leadership aides in the House and Senate say the Republican plan is to roll out bills narrowly tailored to individual issues that will at least give the appearance of action. The controversial, long-stalled proposal to authorize drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will emerge before mid-June as a solo piece of legislation. A bill on standardizing fuel mixtures across the country will also be offered. And support is gaining for stricter conservation requirements for companies — though notably not for individuals. One thing you won't see are more attempts to buy off disgruntled voters with hard cash. The Senate Republican proposal to give every taxpayer $100 caused an outcry around the country and disgust among fiscal conservatives. "People see through gimmicks," said Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, who calls the $100 rebate "goofy political theatrics."

And the Democrats? Their leaders too have been largely silent on encouraging conservation. They're not about to be the ones to remind Americans that Jimmy Carter was their man. The Democrats' most notable proposal so far: a suggested $500 rebate check to taxpayers, an idea they quietly dropped after seeing the failure of the smaller GOP proposal.

One thing Republicans on the Hill want to see more of from the White House is jawboning. "The Administration, especially the Energy department, needs to have a more aggressive information campaign," said Rep. Putnam. "They need to reassure the public. We need to have a barrage of administration officials out there carrying the message." As long as the message isn't "Conserve."