July 25, 2008 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Nancy Pelosi: The new George Wallace

Environmentalists thought they had a lock on the current "progressive" Congress.

That lock is being pried open by public outrage about fuel and food prices - the consequence of wayward environmentalism run rampant.

Energy has become the biggest issue in America, and left-leaning politicians are either waking up to it or suffering a nightmare.

The repercussions are still in early stages as the ripple effect goes beyond the price of gasoline.

  • Ethanol - the left's favorite remedy (next to bicycling) - has literally come a cropper. The expansive mandate to substitute food for fuel has driven food prices up while doing little for clean air.
  • Efforts to pin the blame elsewhere are not going well. Targeting oil speculators has found little traction. Blaming oil companies for not drilling on every current lease hasn't worked, because people understand there's not a gusher in every acre.
  • Public opinion supports ending congressional bans on drilling where we know we can find oil and gas, offshore in particular.  "Drill here, Drill now, Pay less" is a more popular slogan than "Not in my backyard."
  • Mass transit use is up, but that generates demand for more government spending. (Government subsidies pay for 75 percent of transit costs). Those who ride shift their transportation costs off onto taxpayers. Where will the billions come from to pay for this?

People want solutions, but many in Washington are focused on avoiding blame. Congress has dropped even below lawyers as the least-popular folks in America with 91 percent of Americans NOT approving of Congress' work.

Yet politicians can't escape the issue unless they avoid their constituents.  Over 90 percent of America's working households use a car daily. Even when they're not watching the numbers fly by as they fill up their tanks, they see the big signs at every corner gas station that proclaim prices of $4-a-gallon and up. They notice, and their tempers rise.

Scapegoating isn't working. Political leaders who banked on the time-honored strategy of attacking Big Oil have found it no longer resonates with most Americans. Nor does House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's proposal to sue OPEC for charging so much for its oil. A windfall profits tax was duly trotted out and promptly voted down in the Senate. After all, if companies are taxed more, won't prices go up rather than down?

To much congressional dismay, savvy Americans have seen through these flimsy efforts to shift the blame and divert attention.

Those who proposed symbolic releases of relatively minor quantities from America's Strategic Petroleum Reserve (held for military emergencies) find themselves tongue-tied when asked why they won't support drilling for far vaster quantities that are blocked by a federal moratorium.

Old-guard liberals shut down the House Appropriations Committee rather than permit a vote on lifting the offshore drilling moratorium - because too many Democrats were prepared to bolt and join Republicans to allow the drilling.

Both parties have their problems, however. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., suggests we bring back the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit. That would slow down the economy as well as the autos, with negligible mileage savings.

But others are showing adaptability. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has backed off his oft-repeated phrase that, "We cannot drill our way out of this problem." His new message is: "Democrats support domestic production."

Public uproar over energy is rising, and that's a healthy thing. In 2006 and 2007, it blocked the awful immigration amnesty bills. Now it may produce positive legislation, if Americans continue to raise their voices. 

Many families have foregone expensive travel this summer. That leaves them more time to focus on what Congress is doing to solve our energy woes. Considering what Congress has done - and failed to do for years - would be time well spent. 

Scrutiny is the last thing this Congress wants, and the first thing it needs.

Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

There's a Hall of Infamy for politicians who try to obstruct progress.

Alabama Gov. George Wallace qualified for induction in 1963, by standing in a schoolhouse door to block integration.

Today, we have leaders who block the offshore drilling that can ease our gasoline and energy woes. Standing in the way are the new segregationists who believe that oil and water should not mix - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Their goal is to keep the American people from exploring offshore and public lands.

Pelosi has labeled efforts to produce more energy "a hoax." Gov. Wallace said the same thing about integration.

Perhaps Pelosi, Reid and their followers believe alternative energy sources are separate but equal to oil and gas. But they're wrong.

Curiously, one of their allies is an abolitionist - former Vice President Al Gore, whose ideal world features abolition of the internal combustion engine. Gore, though no longer in a position of political power, has realized that Hollywood can shape opinions even more than Washington does. (Gore's Oscar was perhaps the first to be awarded to a horror film.)

While Gore seeks to preach the politics of supposed environmental destruction, these Washington leaders are promoting the politics of energy obstruction.

Gov. Wallace literally blocked the doorway at the University of Alabama to turn away two black students, defying a federal court and using his authority to surround himself with soldiers of the Alabama National Guard. President John F. Kennedy nationalized the Guard to remove them from the governor's control, and the university was integrated.

Speaker Pelosi is making similar use of her considerable power, denying access to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for any proposal that would loosen the restrictions on expanded drilling in America. In committees, she has directed that meetings be recessed or canceled when necessary to prevent elected representatives from offering of any pro-drilling amendments.

The appropriations process has been shut down to avoid amendments. It's hard to believe, but this Congress wants to avoid energy votes more than it wants to spend money.

Similar tactics are being applied in the Senate, along with a refusal to delay its August recess to consider energy legislation. The political sensitivity is greater in the House, however, because every one of its members must face the voters this fall, whereas only one-third of the senators will.

Some of her fellow Democrats are wincing at Pelosi's adamant rhetoric and stance.

"This call for drilling in areas that are protected is a hoax, it's an absolute hoax on the part of the Republicans and this administration," Pelosi told a recent press conference. "It's a decoy to punt your attention away from the fact that their policies have produced $4-a-gallon gasoline."

The speaker is immune to the impact of high prices, however, since she has personal wealth of almost $40 million.

Her language resembles George Wallace's when he called integration "a fraud, a sham and a hoax." Pelosi's diatribes against oil and gas exploration should echo as loudly as Wallace's 1963 inaugural address when he said, "Segregation today. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever."

Pelosi's stridency, like Wallace's, is calculated and long-held. In 1996, she told a committee hearing, "We learned the hard way that oil and water do not mix on our coast." She hasn't wavered since. She recently told the New York Times, ""The president of the United States, with gas at $4 a gallon because of his failed energy policies, is now trying to say that is because I couldn't drill offshore. That is not the cause, and I am not going to let him get away with it."

How much are we losing by restricting about 90 percent of offshore drilling? The Heritage Foundation's Ben Lieberman says it's at least 30 years' worth of imports from Saudi Arabia and enough natural gas to power America's homes for 17 years. The reserves may be much higher, but the 26-year-old congressional moratorium blocks efforts to find out.

Polling shows 73 percent of Americans want to end that moratorium, just as President Bush ended the recent executive branch version. That gesture brought an $18-a-barrel decline in oil prices, even though the presidential action is meaningless unless the Congress lifts its own ban. Doing so would bring lower prices quickly, based on the optimism that future supplies will be more abundant.

Pelosi's comeback is to condemn Big Oil for not doing more expensive drilling in other, far less-promising places; she also proposes that we release 70 million barrels of oil from our military emergency stockpile. America consumes that much oil in four days, but Pelosi claims emptying those military reserves would lower prices by increasing supply. If 70 million barrels would help, wouldn't 19.1 billion barrels of oil help even more? That's how much oil is estimated to be available in the offshore areas Pelosi wants to keep off limits. They also are estimated to hold 83.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In stark contrast to Pelosi's obstructionism is a bipartisan "all of the above" proposal that would lift drilling bans offshore and on public lands, streamline the red tape process that currently stifles drilling, promote nuclear power and encourage energy conservation.

However, Pelosi intends to keep this balanced bill bottled-up in committee.

So long as the stalemate continues, Americans will continue to be pummeled by $4-a-gallon gasoline and all the other higher costs it generates.

There is a way out, however. The congressional moratorium on offshore drilling expires September 30. To keep it in place, Congress must vote to renew the moratorium. And that renewal must then be signed by the president.

Typically, Congress attaches the offshore ban to a spending bill. Now is the time when President Bush could announce he will veto any bill that extends the ban on exploration and drilling offshore. Just as he held the trump card when Congress tried to dictate a forced early withdrawal from Iraq, he now holds the high card - and the high ground - on the drilling moratorium.

Speaker Pelosi's hard-line anti-drilling stance has won her lifetime backing from the far left, just as George Wallace's stance won him the enduring support of committed segregationists. But earning the adulation of extremists is seldom, if ever, in the national interest.

Oil and water don't have to mix, but they can get along just fine. Modern drilling uses safeguards aplenty to protect the environment, with no major spills for over 35 years.

Rather than block progress on energy, Speaker Pelosi should abandon her Wallace stance and get out of the way.


Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ernest Istook Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

Related Issues: Energy and Environment

First appeared in WorldNet Daily