Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives sent a message this week to hard-working commuters forced to pay historically high prices for gasoline: Ride a bike.
The message was buried on page 255 of a 290-page bill the Democratic leadership introduced at 9:45 p.m. on Monday night, forced through the Rules Committee at 10:00 p.m., and put up for a "debate" and final vote -- with no amendments allowed -- on Tuesday evening.
Section 827 of the bill defines the "Transportation Fringe Benefit to Bicycle Commuters."
It says: "The term 'qualified bicycle commuting reimbursement' means, with respect to any calendar year, any employer reimbursement during the 15-month period beginning with the first day of such calendar year for reasonable expenses incurred by the employee during such calendar year for the purchase of a bicycle and bicycle improvements, repair and storage, if such bicycle is regularly used for travel between the employee's residence and place of employment."
Bottom line: Employers could count as a deductible business expense a tax-free $20 monthly reimbursement to workers who bike to work.
Meanwhile, the bill, as explained to me by Republican congressional sources who combed through it in the hours before and after it passed, would effectively outlaw development of America's vast offshore oil resources.
Let me give you two alternative scenarios.
Under scenario one, as the law now stands, the moratorium on selling new offshore oil-drilling leases on 85 percent of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) will expire in less than two weeks. That is because the moratorium is part of the fiscal 2008 Interior Department appropriation, which expires on Sept. 30.
After that date, Interior could begin preparations to sell new offshore oil leases, a process that under existing laws takes two years.
Unless President Bush or the next president signs a new law extending the offshore oil-drilling ban past Sept. 30, Interior would be able to sell leases for any part of the U.S. OCS that is more than 3 miles off the beach. (The first 3 miles are state territory, except on the Gulf coasts of Texas and Florida, where state control extends to 9 miles.)
Anti-drilling forces would still have two shots at killing these leases. First, the governor of the state off whose shores the leases sit could appeal to the secretary of interior under a provision of the OCS Lands Act. Under this provision, the secretary would have to balance the national interest in drilling against the state's interest in not drilling, and then make a ruling.
If the interior secretary rules in favor of drilling, any American could then sue in federal court claiming his determination was incorrect. This suit, however, would be expedited to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which has special jurisdiction in such cases.
If Interior prevailed in court, drilling could go forward.
Now, here's scenario two, the one that would unfold if the bill passed by the House this week becomes law:
States would still control the OCS to 3 miles off shore, but all drilling would be permanently banned by federal statue from 3 miles out to 50 miles out.
The federal government would additionally be prohibited from selling oil drilling leases on the federal OCS from 50 miles out to 100 miles out unless the legislature and governor of the adjacent state enacted a law specifically allowing the federal government to sell federal leases on this federal territory.
Because the House-passed bill makes no provision for sharing the federal royalties from these leases with the states, the states would have no financial incentive to enact such legislation.
Further, even if a state did enact such a law, the House-passed bill empowers governors from neighboring states to object under the provision of the OCS Lands Act if any point on their state's coastline is within 100 miles of the proposed drilling.
This provision was put in the bill, Republicans believe, to give governors in Maryland and Delaware the ability to unilaterally veto oil drilling approved by the legislature of Virginia, and the governor of Florida the ability to unilaterally veto oil drilling approved by Georgia.
House Republicans point to Interior Department estimates that show 88 percent of the undiscovered oil on the OCS is within 50 miles of shore -- in the area put permanently off limits by the House Democrats' bill.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday called the bill the "result of reasonable compromise that will put us on a path toward energy independence by expanding domestic supply of oil drilled offshore."
But the bill was no compromise, and it is unlikely to expand domestic oil supplies from offshore drilling.
If House Democrats have their way, you will be quite happy to accept $20 from your boss as a reward for riding a bike to work.