Robert Novak

The star witness before Stupak's committee two weeks earlier was Michael W. Masters, a hedge fund operator headquartered in Christiansted, Virgin Islands. Hardly anybody had heard of him before he appeared before Congress beginning May 20 to sing songs Democrats wanted to hear. He told Stupak's subcommittee's June 23 hearing that federal regulation would drop the price of oil from $65 to $70 a barrel in a month -- a claim viewed as preposterous by economists I consulted. While Masters swore his firm does not deal in oil futures, BusinessWeek reported June 27 that he "has a keen financial interest in lower oil prices" because of his portfolio's heavy stakes in airlines and autos.

The dominant figure of Stupak's hearing, however, was his mentor and model in paranoid politics: the full Energy and Commerce chairman, Rep. John Dingell, senior member of Congress in his 27th term from the Detroit area. Just shy of his 82nd birthday, he showed he had lost none of the legendary use of sarcasm and invective in questioning Republican government officials.

Dingell told his cross-examination target, Walter Lukken, a former Republican Senate aide who is acting chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), that he was "twiddling your thumbs" in not regulating "those good-hearted folks up there in New York who are running this wonderful, speculated enterprise." He concluded: "Now we find that these good-hearted folks in the futures market have figured how to screw the farmers and the consumers in the city on a whole new product: oil."

Why did Lukken, who surely knows better, not rebut that? For the reason that the kid kicked around in the schoolyard by a bully does not hit back: for fear of inviting more abuse. But Harry Reid has not yet achieved Democratic agreement on a bill, and Bart Stupak's legislative panacea for cutting oil prices by $30 a barrel remains stalled in committee. The paranoid style is hard to turn into action.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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