Of Plumbers and Energy Task Forces

Posted: Apr 02, 2002 12:00 AM
Political controversy sure keeps us professional wise persons fruitfully occupied, but a confession is in order. To wit, probably 50 percent of the controversies one encounters in the world of Washington are just plain silly: sound and fury, signifying nothing; pursued chiefly or exclusively for the sake of furthering personal or ideological goals. The who-shaped-the-Bush-energy-plan controversy is of this order: painfully so. We read -- get a good grip on that rocking chair, Grandpa -- that people who knew something about energy advised Vice President Cheney about energy. A New York Times headline says it all: "Energy Industry's Recommendations to Bush Became National Policy." This was last spring. The Bush administration was responding to the need for an energy policy -- a task force chaired by the vice president weighed, pondered, recommended. Critics of the policy adopted, through executive order or recommendation to Congress, soon were in full cry. The energy industry, it was quickly recognized, had come off better from this operation than had the environmental lobby. Who had given the Cheney task force advice used to shape recommendations? Could the energy industry have been communicating a disproportionate share of the advice? Pending now is a suit filed by Congress' General Accounting Office seeking release of the names of task-force sources. Newshounds have been snuffling through task-force documents released by the Energy Department for signs of a connection between advice given and policy adopted. Aha! The Times pounces. "[S]everal recommendations from energy industry representatives were written into the White House's national energy report and into an executive order signed by President Bush." The president of the National Resources Defense Council, John H. Adams, is vexed. "Big energy companies all but held the pencil for the White House task force," he avers. Times reporters found "a stream of ... e-mail messages to the Energy Department from the American Petroleum Institute, the leading lobbyist for the domestic oil industry." I can think of one logical response to these assertions: Hooray! According to a rule of thumb in human affairs, when the plumbing goes out, you call a plumber, not a lawyer or a mortician's assistant. It would seem plausible to stretch the rule to energy. The energy industry's business is the discovery, manufacturing and distribution of energy. It's logical, wouldn't you think, to lean more heavily on the advice of this sector than that of, say, interest groups whose mission is in part to block or hamstring the production of energy. If you want an environmental policy, ask the environmentalists, but that wasn't the question before the house when the Cheney task force assembled. There is more to the matter: Receiving advice isn't the same as acting on it. The task force could have listened to the environmentalist agenda until the world looked level, but if that agenda ran contrary to the goal of expanded energy production, what obligation to follow said advice would then have obtained? In other words, a free-market-minded administration could never have been expected to push a policy founded on government restriction of fossil fuel and nuclear power. And more yet: Are we to believe the Cheney task force was some kind of super legislative body with power to impose its will? The task force's authority (like that of any other purely advisory body) was limited to sending out for doughnuts and deciding what advice to give. Policy is for policymakers, such as the president and Congress. The high crime of recommending policy the Democratic congressional leadership doesn't like is a crime invented for this particular purpose. Which is? Furthering the Democratic objective of showing that the Bush administration is controlled by Selfish Corporate Interests. Enron has flopped as a political issue. What about the Cheney task force? Any better prospects there? That would seem unlikely, given all now going on in the world, but silliness, which isn't the same as stupidity, can pay unexpected dividends. Next time the plumbing fails, play it safe: Hunt up a lawyer.