How the Senate raised CAFE standards against all odds
by beachmom, Tue Jun 26, 2007 at 12:30:20 PM EDT
Crossposted at DailyKos
Last week, the Senate passed an energy bill, which among other things raised CAFE standards (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) to 35 mpg by 2020 for cars and SUVs. McJoan broke the news last Thursday and immediately put pressure on the House to do the same. Although many wanted the standard higher and sooner, make no mistake that this change, the first change in fuel efficiency standards in nearly 20 years, is little short of revolutionary legislation. There is also the fact that no one expected this thing to pass (yes, it needed 60 votes to circumvent a Republican filibuster), with many gloomy articles appearing, lamenting the undue influence the auto industry has on Congress. So what happened? Well, it is my belief that an often overlooked, but very important committee in the Senate -- the Small Business and Entrepeneurship Committee -- set the stage to make the first step in combatting global climate change a reality.
Step into the Senate Small Biz Committee world, and it is like an alternate universe. A place where real bipartisanship exists, where pragmatism often rules the day, while "one of the most liberal members of the Senate" John Kerry is chairman and moderate Republican Olympia Snowe is ranking member (not to mention netroots favorite and agricultural small business owner Jon Tester of Montana sits on the committee.). Within that bipartisanship and pragmatism, Senator Kerry has managed to hold many innovative hearings, where he can drive home important issues dear to his heart like veteran owned businesses, minority and women owned businesses, health care for small businesses, and helping New Orleans businesses. In addition, he has used the Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepeneuership to highlight what he considers a large threat to our country, and that is Global Climate Change. Two weeks ago was no different when the committee had a hearing titled "The Impact of Rising Gas Prices on America's Small Businesses". At the link you can watch the video of the hearing and take a look at the lineup.
There were two businessmen testifying that made the hearing especially engaging, complete with a bombshell uttered by a lifelong Republican. I speak of Fred Smith, CEO of Federal Express and Sal Lupoli, owner of Sal's Pizza in Massachusetts. Why these two? Senator Kerry explains:
I am glad that Mr. Smith is able to join us today, and I'm looking forward to his testimony. Mr. Smith's company Federal Express got its start as a small business back in 1971, and its success was built in large part by servicing America's small businesses, so he is in a unique position to speak on how fuel prices are impacting both his company and his small business customers.
Mr. Smith also represents an important shift that is occurring in this country--the recognition among key business leaders that that our nation's energy policy is linked directly to our economy, our security and our environment. Without a strong energy policy that invests in efficiency and renewable energy sources, America is digging itself deeper into a hole.
Sal added a "little guy" component, not just because he is a small business owner (with a very endearing Mass. accent, I may add) but speaking of the hardships both his business and his employees have endured due to high gas prices. So with that background in mind, what revolution occurred during a non-sexy (no subpoenas at all) hearing? Well, how about this:
Memphis-based FedEx Corp., which operates 77,000 vehicles and spends $3 billion a year on fuel, has 93 hybrid-electric vehicles in its fleet, and is supporting efforts to refine the technology. The hybrids, however, cost $35,000 more than a conventional delivery vehicle, said FedEx Chairman and CEO Frederick W. Smith. Widespread deployment is "impossible," he said, with that kind of cost disparity.
Businesses will need incentives to adopt alternative-fuel vehicles, he said.
"I rarely come to Washington to argue for government regulation," Smith told Kerry's committee.
But the free market "has not -- and will not -- adequately motivate the investments necessary to protect the nation in the event of an oil crisis," he said. "As such, mandating improvements in the fuel economy of our cars and trucks is one critical and unavoidable step that Americans must take if we are to halt our national descent into unmitigated oil dependence."
Let's be clear about this. Fred Smith is a Republican, and will always be a Republican. Although being good friends with Kerry since their days at Yale, he backed Bush in 2004, and will back John McCain in 2008. A lefty tree hugger, Fred is not. But he, along with many in industry, see the writing on the wall in regards to being addicted to oil, and they are now lobbying Congress to act. In addition, the other small business owners testifying spoke of how they have no options for buying a more fuel efficient vehicle for their businesses, and it's hurting their customers as well as their bottom line. Sal even poignantly pointed out that he and others managing his pizza shops will sometimes drive their own employees to work since the gas prices have gone so high. I urge you to watch the hearing, especially taking a look at Fred and Sal, who make compelling arguments for change.
Fast forward now to the energy bill. The Republicans were making it plain that any controversial measure would be filibustered, forcing Dems to have to get to 60 votes in order to get anything passed. That meant they needed Republican votes. The Bingaman amendment went down in flames and the Kerry tax package to roll back tax breaks from oil companies to fund alternative energy lost by one vote. So it seemed CAFE would die, too, just like it always had, since Senator Kerry and Senator McCain (the old McCain) had their CAFE 2002 bill killed. Arianna Huffington was very pessimistic, lamenting a dysfunctional Congress that couldn't get this passed. Then suddenly, the unspeakable happened. It passed.
The energy legislation, which passed in a 65-to-27 vote a few minutes before midnight, came together quickly after a bipartisan coalition of senators forged an agreement on the fuel economy standards, which would require Detroit automakers to make their entire lines of new passenger cars, trucks, and sport utility vehicles reach an average 35 miles per gallon on the highway by 2020.
Less than a half-hour after the senators reached the compromise -- and during a news conference about the deal -- the Senate passed the measure on a voice vote. Kerry interrupted the news conference to announce the vote.
"Done deal," Kerry said.
"I'm flabbergasted," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. "I thought we'd be arguing this all night."
So, why do I think the Small Biz Committee made the difference in an effort that included a great many hard working senators like Feinstein? Perhaps, it was this line in the same news article:
The compromise agreement, brokered over the past two days during back-room negotiations that included key roles by Democrat John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Republican Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, passed on a voice vote.
So the chairman and ranking member of the Small Biz committee played key roles in getting this deal done, and succeeded in peeling off more than enough Republican votes to get it passed. Call this Exhibit A of how to get things done in the Senate when you have a very thin margin with some Democrats (cough Levin and Stabenow of Michigan) who aren't exactly with you. This really is good news, guys, when legislation passes in Washington moving toward our goals for a change. That's also what made this positive San Francisco Chronicle article possible to write:
Energy bill reflects shift in political power
Victory in November allowed Democrats to move focus from drilling to conservation
The Senate's passage of an energy bill this week shows that elections matter -- even a slight Democratic majority, with the help of some Republicans, has begun shifting the nation's energy policy from a focus on drilling to conservation and using renewable fuels.
For six years while Republicans controlled Congress, the majority followed the motto of Vice President Dick Cheney, who led the administration's energy task force and famously said: "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."
Now the pendulum is swinging the other way.
Senate Democrats focused their new energy bill on trying to reduce America's thirst for oil by approving the first major hike in fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks. The bill also includes a host of efficiency measures -- including new standards for appliances and lightbulbs -- and requires all federal buildings to use 30 percent less energy by 2015 and stop using all fossil-fuel-based energy by 2030.
"It's the beginning of a revolution in American energy policy," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Friday.