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A Year After BP’s Oil Spill, Congress Sits Idly By: “It’s Not In The Headlines Anymore”

A year has passed since BP PLC’s Macondo well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 rig workers and launching the nation’s worst oil spill — and an all-encompassing environmental drama that played out for months as the oil industry and federal government struggled to contain the gusher.

But the heart-wrenching images of oil-slicked pelicans and the otherworldly videos of oil spewing from the seafloor largely seem to have faded from the minds of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. A year after the blowout, members of Congress have made little progress toward addressing the issues raised by the disaster.

The reasons for their lassitude are numerous.

Chief among them is the highly partisan environment on Capitol Hill, where a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate struggles to find common ground with the overwhelmingly Republican House.

“We haven’t responded because of the general polarization that has affected us in the last few months,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

Also key is a shift in concern over offshore drilling safety, regulatory reform and coastal restoration to a closer-to-the-belt fear about the economic ramifications of escalating gasoline prices.

“It’s not in the headlines anymore,” said Rep. Joe Barton(R-Texas), the former ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who infamously apologized to BP’s then-CEO Tony Hayward last summer for having to endure what Barton characterized as a White House “shakedown.”

Indeed, in the months since BP contained the gusher, a nuclear crisis in Japan and political unrest in the Middle East have sparked a rapid rise in crude oil prices, shifting the energy conversation from one disaster to another. And a resumption of deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico — albeit slowly — has dampened the urgency to pass a spill-response bill that would end the Obama administration’s ban on offshore exploration, a GOP priority.

Still, the lack of progress on a congressional spill response is not sitting well with many in the environmental community.

“I don’t think anybody in Congress has a legitimate excuse for the fact that they’ve done nothing to respond to the worst environmental disaster this nation has ever seen,” said Regan Nelson, senior oceans advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Nor has it quelled the concerns of some of the staunchest environmental Democrats on Capitol Hill.

“We should have moved last year. We need a response,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

History repeating itself?

But there is historical context for the delay. Congress waited a year and a half after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in March 1989 before taking legislative action.

That spill happened at the beginning of the 101st Congress, when Democrats held the majority in both chambers.

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is different. The disaster occurred in an election year, and although the House was able to pass a Democrat-authored spill-response measure last summer, the Senate ran out of political steam to push a bill through in the weeks before the election or in the “lame duck” session last fall.

The House-passed measure (H.R. 3534 (pdf)), which incorporated Democratic language from three House committees, would have beefed up offshore worker and environmental safety standards, imposed new ethics standards on federal drilling regulators, created a restoration program to coordinate efforts to rehabilitate the Gulf of Mexico and created a new industry-funded endowment to protect oceans, among other provisions.

It also would have eliminated liability limits on companies drilling offshore, something most Republicans and oil-state Democrats are staunchly against because of the impact it could have on smaller and independent drillers. Despite GOP resistance to the liability language and other provisions — 193 Republicans and oil-state Democrats voted against the measure — the legislation was ultimately reported favorably. But talks quickly stalled in the Senate, where Democratic margins were smaller and resistance to the liability language from two moderate oil-state Democrats was too great to allow time for passage in the waning months of 2010.

The liability issue is complex and hearkens back to the legislation passed in response to the Exxon Valdez spill. Under that law, Congress capped oil companies’ liability for economic damages related to a spill at $75 million. Oil companies are still responsible for paying the full cost of containing and cleaning up a spill.

At the Obama administration’s prodding last summer — the “shakedown” Barton referred to — BP set up an independent $20 billion claims fund to pay for spill-related damages.

And even though BP agreed to pay for all the financial costs related to its spill — such as fishermen put out of work or empty hotels at the beach at high season — many Democrats in Congress watched in horror as the price tag of those damages escalated and called for a significant hike or complete elimination of the $75 million liability limit to protect coastal residents from a future spill where the companies involved might not have such deep coffers.

Republicans and the oil-state Democrats are not necessarily opposed to raising the cap. They just do not want to eliminate it outright. Doing so would shut out smaller producers and devastate an already battered coastal economy, they say.

“I think there’s widespread consensus among Democrats and Republicans that the liability limit is too low, that it needs to be raised,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), one of the chief opponents of the unlimited liability language. “We want to do that in a way … that keeps the industry as robust as possible between the large multinational companies and the smaller independent companies” (E&E Daily, Feb. 2).

Landrieu is working with Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) on liability compromise language that would raise the initial cap to $250 million after which an industry-funded insurance pool would kick in. But the lawmakers have been negotiating on language since last September, with new promises each week that a bill is forthcoming. They have not introduced a compromise measure yet.

Other Democrats — and a lone Republican — have introduced new measures in both the House and Senate that would eliminate the liability cap entirely.

House focus on drilling

But none shows promise of moving any time soon. Republicans in the House appear poised to take up measures that would instead accelerate domestic oil and gas production, and Senate Democratic leaders have struggled to pass even slightly controversial bills.

Indeed, the House Natural Resources Committee this week marked up three measures from Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) that would force lease sales in new areas and compel the Interior Department to speed up drilling permit processing, among other provisions.

Such a stance is garnering criticism from Democrats on and off the Hill, like Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose agency is responsible for overseeing offshore drilling.

“Much of the legislation I’ve seen bandied around, especially with the House Republicans, it’s almost as if the Deepwater Horizon Macondo well incident never happened,” Salazar told reporters earlier this week. “Some people seem to have gotten amnesia of Deepwater Horizon and the horrific BP spill. I don’t have amnesia” (E&ENews PM, April 12).

Interior has taken great strides to boost its regulatory structure and offshore drilling safety in the months since the spill. The agency has imposed new, stricter permitting safety standards. And it has completely reorganized the beleaguered office that oversees offshore development.

But Hastings bristled at Salazar’s remarks, saying one of his measures would strengthen drilling safety.

“The Gulf bill does two things that’s not current in law: It puts in law the permitting process and it requires the secretary to do a safety review, cleanup review,” Hastings told reporters in the Capitol this week. “Now those two are significant reforms in my vision.”

Democrats have other reforms in mind.

“Here we are, one week removed from the first anniversary of the BP spill, and the Republican majority is marking up a trio of bills that will take us back to the days of rubber stamps and systemic failures,” said Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the leading Democrat on the resources panel, in a statement earlier this week. “This legislative package reflects a pre-spill mentality of speed over safety.”

Markey earlier this year introduced a new spill-response bill (H.R. 501 (pdf)) that largely mirrors the House-passed bill from last summer while incorporating some of the recommendations from the presidential commission tasked with investigating the causes of the disaster.

The seven-member commission issued its final report to the president in January, making a number of recommendations about how to improve offshore drilling safety and citing the BP incident as evidence of “systemic” problems within the industry.

But Republicans have bristled at that language and will likely ignore the commission’s findings — and Markey’s prodding.

Specifically, Markey’s bill includes the unlimited liability language and calls for a dedicated funding stream for the federal agencies overseeing the offshore drilling industry from user fees on the oil and gas industry.

Republicans and the oil industry have raised concerns about language in the bill that would impose new fees on the oil industry.

Legislation that imposes new fees “would not achieve the results that some of these members are trying to achieve. It would actually reduce investment, reduce revenues, harm jobs,” said Eric Wohlschlegel, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s main trade group.

Instead, he said the industry tends to sway toward Hastings’ approach. “Policies that allow for more access will actually accomplish a lot of goals currently on Capitol Hill, which is create jobs, increase revenues and increase energy security.”

Senate movement

On the Senate side, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee is prepping spill-response legislation that will likely look similar to the measure reported out of that committee last summer, with some inclusion of the presidential commission’s recommendations. But the measure won’t likely be as severe as Markey’s measure. For one, the energy panel does not have jurisdiction over liability; the Environment and Public Works Committee does. And Bingaman is known for crafting legislation that can get bipartisan support from many of his panel’s members, including Landrieu and Alaska Republican and oil-industry advocate Lisa Murkowski.

“One of the early bills will be a bill to ensure the Interior Department has the authority and resources they need to maintain proper regulation of oil and gas drilling on the outer continental shelf,” Bingaman said. “I think the American people support that, and I think we’ll have strong support again this year.”

Bingaman said he generally supports moving production and safety legislation separately.

“I don’t know why anyone in the Congress would not want to see us improve safety of drilling in the outer continental shelf,” he said. “I think that there ought to be bipartisan agreement to do whatever legislation needs to be done to improve safety and offshore drilling, and separate from that, we should have a full debate about the extent of increased production we want, things we want to do to encourage more production.”

Bingaman’s approach could gain modest support from environmentalists, who would likely still want to see further action on drilling reform.

NRDC’s Nelson called it “a great first step” and said she was looking forward to seeing the legislation.

Other measures she would like to see taken up include beefing up funding for the Interior agency that oversees offshore drilling, significantly raising the liability cap and sending a portion of the penalty money collected from BP for the spill to the Gulf region for coastal restoration work.

A rare area of consensus

The idea to use BP fines to pay for restoration of the coast has broad support among Republicans and Democrats both on and off Capitol Hill. The presidential panel called on the federal government to use 80 percent of the fines collected from BP for Clean Water Act violations to pay for coastal restoration in the Gulf. And Gulf Coast lawmakers are essentially unanimous in their support of such an idea.

Landrieu and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) yesterday introduced legislation that would dedicate 80 percent of BP’s penalty fees to coastal restoration in the states affected by the disaster.

Specifically, the measure would send 35 percent of the penalty money to the five Gulf Coast states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas — affected by the spill to be used specifically for ecosystem restoration and to support the travel, tourism and seafood industries. The measure would use 60 percent of the penalty money to establish a federal-state council to direct coastal restoration. And 5 percent of the funds would be used to create a science and technology program focused on coastal restoration, protection and research to improve offshore energy development safety.

The Clean Water Act allows U.S. EPA to collect $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel of oil spilled. Based on current federal estimates of 4.9 million barrels spilled, BP could face fines of $5.4 billion to $21.1 billion. Under current law, that money would be paid to the federal government.

“This is a great opportunity for the nation to do right by the Gulf Coast,” Landrieu said in a statement. “It’s a great opportunity for the polluters to step up and do the right thing.”

Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, has also authored a measure in the House that would direct some of the funds to Gulf states. And according to Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from Louisiana, “everybody on the delegation is on board with the 80 percent.”

“It’s important to get it through now while you’re talking about deficit and the debt. You don’t want people to say ‘Oh, here’s this new pool of money, we should pay down the debt,'” Richmond said. “No, we should fix what was broken.”

But despite strong support for such a measure from Gulf state lawmakers, House leaders with jurisdiction do not appear anxious to move such legislation.

“I don’t want to act until all the information is in, and not all the information is in,” Hastings told reporters earlier this week. He wants to wait until all the investigations of the disaster — like the presidential commission’s study — are complete before moving any spill-response measures.

The joint Coast Guard and Interior Department board investigating the disaster recently pushed back the deadline for completing its inquiry until July.

But Hastings did not rule out all chances of movement on oil spill-response legislation this Congress.

“I want to get all the information,” he said, “and we’ll respond accordingly.”

By: Katie Howell, Greenwire; Contribution by John McArdel, The New York Times, Published in The New York Times, April 15, 2011

April 17, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill, Democrats, Economy, Energy, Environment, Environmental Protection Agency, GOP, Government, Politics, Regulations, Republicans, Senate, States | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sarah Palin: You Becha, “I Am AFP”…”All For Profit”

Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) — remember her? — headlined a conservative rally in Madison yesterday, apparently hoping to generate support for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) far-right agenda. More interesting than the message, though, was the turnout.

Attendees heard fairly predictable rhetoric. Palin, for example, insisted that Walker’s anti-union agenda is “not trying to hurt union members.” The Fox News personality also excoriated congressional Republicans for not being even more intransigent. The whole thing was organized by the Koch brother’s right-wing Americans for Prosperity, and Palin spoke behind a podium with a sign that read, “I am AFP.”

But who exactly heard all of this?

Away from the stage, the passionate arguments went right on, each side claiming the upper hand, the larger crowd, the right side of history. The police estimated a crowd — at its highest point — of about 6,500 people, though it was uncertain how many of those were Tea Party supporters and how many were there to protest. Either way, the figure was far smaller than the tens of thousands of demonstrators that had been reported around the Capitol on several days in recent months.

At the height of progressive protests in February and March, tens of thousands braved the elements to condemn the Walker agenda — and wouldn’t leave. Yesterday, Palin led a parade of odd right-wing figures, at an event paid for by powerful billionaires, and about 6,500 people showed up.

And of those 6,500, most of those in attendance were there to oppose Palin and her far-right allies, not support them.

It’s a reminder about the changing tide. When Tea Partiers organize a rally and bring one of their highest-profile stars to headline, but are nevertheless outnumbered at their own event, which suffered from poor attendance anyway, it’s not a good sign.

By: Steve Benen, Washington Monthly, Political Animal, April 16, 2011

April 17, 2011 Posted by | Birthers, Conservatives, Democrats, Elections, Exploratory Presidential Committees, GOP, Journalists, Media, Politics, Pundits, Republicans, Right Wing, Teaparty, Union Busting, Unions, Wisconsin | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Remember When The GOP Hated Medicare Cuts?

You’ve seen hypocrisy in politics before. But rarely have you seen the brazen kind Republicans just showed on the House floor, when they voted for Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity.”

Ryan’s budget calls for repealing most of the Affordable Care Act, including both the insurance coverage expansions and creation of an independent board to help restrain Medicare costs. But it would leave in place the rest of the planned reductions in Medicare spending, at least for the next ten years. Among those cuts are $136 billion in reductions to Medicare Advantage plans.

As you may know, Medicare Advantage plans are the private insurance alternative, already in existence, for seniors who prefer to opt out of the traditional, government-run insurance plan. About a quarter of all seniors now use them. The government pays insurers a fee for every senior who enrolls, but studies have shown the government is paying too much. That’s how supporters of the Affordable Care Act have justified the $136 billion reduction.

Throughout the health care debate, Republicans not only rejected these and other arguments for Medicare cuts. They made the cuts a centerpiece of their attacks on Democrats, as the Associated Press noted recently:

“The new law’s massive Medicare cuts will fall squarely on the backs of seniors, millions of whom will be forced off their current Medicare coverage,” the GOP wrote in their Pledge to America, an election-season manifesto. …

In addition to the Pledge to America, House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and individual Republican candidates all criticized the cuts.

The National Republican Congressional Committee featured them in ads attacking Democrats in numerous campaign commercials, and some individual candidates made use of the cuts as well.

Ryan and his supporters claim the Medicare reductions in the new Republican budget are different, because Democrats used their cuts to finance more government spending. And that’s partially true. Although Democrats bolstered Medicare drug coverage and arguably put in place policies that will lead to higher quality care, they used the bulk of the saved Medicare money to offset the cost of subsidizing insurance for working-age Americans.

But, by the same logic, Republicans are also diverting most of the Medicare Advantage money away from Medicare. They’re using that money to underwrite the cost of tax cuts for the wealthy.

So Democrats are cutting Medicare to make sure everybody has health insurance, while Republicans are cutting Medicare to make sure millionaires have tax cuts. This is really an argument the Republicans want to make?

By: Jonathan Cohn, The New Republic, April 15, 2011

April 17, 2011 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Budget, Congress, Conservatives, Deficits, Democrats, GOP, Government, Health Care, Health Care Costs, Health Reform, Medicare, Neo-Cons, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing, Taxes, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Flirting With The Fringe: Stop Pretending Michele Bachmann Can Win The Iowa Caucuses

Ever since Michele Bachmann announced her intention to form a presidential exploratory committee, pundits, including Ed Kilgore at TNR, have been making the case that she has a good chance at winning Iowa—or if not winning, then doing well enough to hurt one or more of the stronger candidates. Republican caucus-goers in the state, they argue, are at least half-nuts, and therefore may well support Bachmann or some other candidate who doesn’t pass conventional standards of seriousness.

Certainly, Iowa Republicans are very socially conservative, more so than in some other states. But a closer look at Iowa caucus history shows that their history of supporting fringe candidates is not quite what it’s made out to be.

The case that “wacky Iowans will do anything” essentially comes down to interpreting a handful of episodes from recent decades. The first occurred in 1988 when Pat Robertson stunned everyone by finishing second with 25 percent of the vote, besting George H.W. Bush and Jack Kemp. But Pat Robertson was a social conservative—and no ordinary one at that—in a year in which the frontrunner (George H.W. Bush) was not. Moreover, that example is now over two decades old, and since then Iowa Republicans have had no trouble voting for mainstream candidates with conventional credentials, as long as those candidates—Lamar Alexander, George W. Bush—had solid records on social conservative issues.

That leaves us with three other supposed episodes of Iowan craziness: Pat Buchanan’s second place finish in 1996; the surprising showings of fringe candidates Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer in 2000; and Huckabee’s victory in 2008. Closer inspection of each of these episodes, however, reveals that none were quite as crazy as they appear.

Take Pat Buchannan in 1996. As odd as it might seem now, he was almost a serious candidate at the time: He had already run for president in 1992, and while he was never quite a plausible nominee, he did have some serious claim as a repeat candidate that Bachmann doesn’t have now. Nor was Buchannan’s success in Iowa especially unique. In fact, he proceeded to win the primary in New Hampshire, and wound up beating his Iowa percentage in sixteen states (several of those, to be sure, were after other candidates had dropped out, so the higher percentage was less impressive).

As for Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer in 2000, they certainly were fringe candidates—even more so than Bachmann—and their combined 25 percent was both impressive and anomalous; they combined for only 7 percent in New Hampshire, although Keyes did have some stronger showings in late states after the nomination was decided. However, it’s also the case that they didn’t have a whole lot of competition. John McCain campaigned in Iowa in 2000, but he did not fully commit to the state, and the only other candidate they beat was Orrin Hatch, who hardly ran any campaign at all. And even with their totals combined, Keyes and Bauer finished well back of Steve Forbes for second, and even further behind winner George W. Bush.

Finally, there’s Huckabee’s surprise victory in 2008; but the extent to which his candidacy was in any way similar to Bachmann’s has been vastly overstated. Yes, he won with the support of social issues voters. But Huckabee wasn’t some backbench member of the House; he was a recent former governor, and, in that sense, just as legitimate a candidate as Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.

Compared to Huckabee, Michele Bachmann is an altogether different sort of candidate. Since 1972, no candidate in any way similar has run a competitive campaign. The only three members of the House who had plausible shots at winning—Mo Udall in 1976, Jack Kemp in 1988, and Dick Gephardt in 1988 and 2004—were all senior members with leadership positions, legislative accomplishments, or both. No, Bachmann belongs in a different category, with other sideshow acts who may attract attention but have no real chance to win the nomination. And even in allegedly crazy Iowa, those candidates rarely impress on caucus day.

By: Jonathan Bernstein, The New Republic, April 16, 2011

April 17, 2011 Posted by | Conservatives, Democracy, Democrats, Elections, Exploratory Presidential Committees, GOP, Governors, Ideology, Independents, Iowa Caucuses, Journalists, Media, Politics, Pundits, Republicans, Right Wing, States, Swing Voters, Teaparty, Voters | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lucy, Charlie Brown And Football: The Politics Of Personal Grievance

Congressional Republicans all but dared President Obama to engage in a fiscal debate on their terms, demanding to know whether and how he’d tackle long-term debt reduction. The president agreed and presented a credible, realistic plan to cut $4 trillion from the debt over 12 years.

GOP officials obviously weren’t going to like his vision, but I’m a little surprised they’re still whining that Obama was mean to them.

The three Republican congressmen saw it as a rare ray of sunshine in Washington’s stormy budget battle: an invitation from the White House to hear President Obama lay out his ideas for taming the national debt.

They expected a peace offering, a gesture of goodwill aimed at smoothing a path toward compromise. But soon after taking their seats at George Washington University on Wednesday, they found themselves under fire for plotting “a fundamentally different America” from the one most Americans know and love.

“What came to my mind was: Why did he invite us?” Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said in an interview Thursday. “It’s just a wasted opportunity.”

Paul Ryan was reportedly “furious” and complained that the speech “was extremely political, very partisan.”

It’s worth fleshing this out, because there are some important angles to keep in mind.

First, the Republicans’ politics of personal grievance is based solely on their hurt feelings. They’re not saying the president lied or that his numbers don’t add up, but rather, they’re outraged that Obama was a big meanie. That’s kind of pathetic, and it reinforces fears that the House GOP majority is dominated by right-wing lawmakers with temperament of children.

Second, exactly what kind of reaction did Republicans seriously expect? Their fraudulent and callous budget plan, approved yesterday despite bipartisan opposition, eliminates Medicare. It punishes the elderly, the disabled, and low-income families, and rewards millionaires and billionaires. It calls for devastating cuts that would do widespread damage to the middle class and the economy. Were Republicans seriously waiting for Obama to politely pat them on the head and say, “It’s OK, you tried your best. I’ll give you an A for effort”?

Third, why is it Republicans expect one-sided graciousness? They expected a “peace offering” after pushing their own plan that was “deliberately constructed to be as offensive to Democrats as it’s possible to be,” and didn’t even bother with insincere “nods in the direction of bipartisanship.” I’ll never understand why Obama is expected to be conciliatory with those who refuse to do the same.

And finally, having a debate pitting two competing visions isn’t a bad development. Greg Sargent’s take on this rings true.

Throughout the first two years of Obama’s presidency, leading Republicans have regularly claimed that Obama is taking America towards socialism. Yet when a Democratic president stands up and aggressively defends his vision and worldview, and contrasts it sharply with that of his foes, something’s wrong. That’s not supposed to happen.

Obama’s characterization of the GOP vision was harsh. But so what? Politics is supposed to be an impassioned argument over what we all think the country should be. Is it possible to cross lines? Sure, but Obama didn’t cross any lines — in fairness, neither has Ryan — and no one was blindsided. No one was the victim of any sneak attack. We should want politicians who think their opponents’ worldviews are deeply wrongheaded to be free to say so in very vivid terms. Otherwise, what’s the point of it all?

I’d add just one last point. For two years, Obama pleaded with Republicans to play a constructive role, work in good faith, and compromise. They refused. Lucy doesn’t get to complain when Charlie Brown doesn’t want to run at a football that’s going to be pulled away anyway.

By: Steve Benen, Washington Monthly, Political Animal, April 16, 2011

April 17, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Congress, Conservatives, Deficits, Democracy, Democrats, Economy, Government, Ideologues, Ideology, Lawmakers, Medicaid, Medicare, Politics, President Obama, Rep Paul Ryan, Republicans, Right Wing, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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