When Washington is in crisis mode, its officials move into high-speed action mode. Which is to say, they start talking faster.
And America’s gas pains — economic and political — are a major crisis that is hurting worst those who can afford it least. So Washington officials are a blur of action, racing in front of the cameras to promote their pet solutions.
Here’s where we are today: Gasoline prices are shooting up faster than the gas station guys can scurry up the ladders to change the big numbers on the big signs. Indeed, the only thing shooting up as fast are the profits of Exxon and the other big oil companies — huge profits, record profits. Exxon’s profits for the first quarter of 2008 were a whopping 17 percent higher than its huge profits from the previous quarter.
Big Oil’s profits far exceed those of the other industries that you used to think needed to be reined in — Big Pharm, Big Farm, the old Ma Bell. Big Oil’s response is short and crude: The world price of crude oil is at record highs. That’s why you must pay record prices at the pumps.
The notion that the burden should be shared by all — with you paying less at the pump and oil companies taking lesser profits that, even so, are still higher than those in other industries — is something big oil considers to be insultingly crude (only this time they pronounce it without the "e").
Here is what Official Washington is saying today:
Democrats say we must fix what is wrong by clamping a new tax on the windfall profits of the big oil companies. That will cause the big oil companies to act more responsibly.
Republicans are saying windfall, shmindfall. Big profits are the mother lode of capitalism. The Grand Old Party’s top answer for your gas pains today has been an idea that may well make it less likely that you will remain doubled over with gas pains a decade from now: Start drilling for oil beneath good old American land — in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWAR).
To which environmentalists say, drilling there could endanger Arctic wildlife. To which economic survivalists could say the Arctic wildlife is already endangered by the pigs of the lower 48 and the rest of the world — because their energy emissions are already endangering life in the Arctic.
Here is what Washington’s left and right are also saying: We must promote alternative fuels — solar, wind, ethanol, natural gas, diesel (the new engines are far cleaner than they used to be), shale, hydrogen fuel cell cars of the future, and the hybrid cars of today. To which many will stop you at the mention of "ethanol" to utter the in-crowd’s new reflexive response: A gallon of ethanol costs more to produce than a gallon of gas — and corn for ethanol is driving up prices of all things that use corn. To which one can respond: But at least we won’t be picking that corn in the sands of Saudi Arabia.
Also, Washington needs to fix its hybrid tax-credit bungle. Buyers of "full hybrid" cars which achieve maximum mileage and produce near zero emissions — Toyota’s Prius and Honda’s Civic (with miles per gallon in the upper 40s) and Toyota’s mid-size Camry (35 MPG) — deserve federal tax credits that must be made permanent. Buyers of silly "mild hybrid" cars such as the Chevrolet Malibu which scores just 2 MPG better than non-hybrid models should get no federal tax credits.
Here is what nobody seems to have the political fortitude (see also: governmental guts) to say: Washington’s left, right and squishy-soft center need to end their battles of the buzz words, deep-six their pet political agendas and recognize that America’s energy crisis requires an urgent, all-out approach.
Today it is an economic security crisis. Those suffering most are those who can least afford to pay $4 — going on $5 — a gallon. Those soaring gas prices are being matched by soaring prices for all goods and services that at some point involve the use of petroleum, which is to say: Everything).
Tomorrow it is a national security crisis: America still imports 60 percent of its oil, much of it from the volatile Middle East. We can no longer wait for politically perfect solutions. Drill in ANWAR and safeguard the wildlife in every way possible. Today we face a rare test of political will. To which the correct answer must be: All of the above.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)