Ignore the political rant and see the last paragraph, especially the idea of a commission to offer science advice as a way around the problem of polarized politicians picking winners and losers beyond all reason.
Dr. Stephen R. Humphrey, Director of Academic Programs,
School of Natural Resources and Environment,
Box 116455, 103 Black Hall, University of Florida
Gainesville, FL 32611-6455 USA
Tel. 352-392-9230, Fax 352-392-9748
By GERALD F. SEIB [http://online.wsj.com/img/colhed_Seib_Gerald.jpg]
Oil Woes Fail to Stir Leadership
June 24, 2008; Page A2
Why is Rep. Randy Forbes all alone out there?
Rep. Forbes is an earnest Republican congressman from Virginia who has distinguished himself by calling for a "Manhattan Project" to fully end the U.S.'s dependence on foreign energy within 20 years. The Manhattan Project label harks back to the government's crash project to develop and field a nuclear weapon within just a few years to prevail in World War II.
The implication is that the country's fate is no less at stake now that its economy is being held hostage by a world oil market so out of control that even Saudi Arabia is watching helplessly. The surprise here lies not in Rep. Forbes's proposal, though it is an interesting call for mandated higher auto fuel efficiency and expanded use of biofuels and nuclear and solar power, overseen by a new national science commission and fueled by big cash prizes dangled before scientists to conjure up solutions.
The surprising thing is that there aren't 100 Randy Forbes out there, issuing similar calls to arms to seize this moment and finally cure the country's oil addiction. As it happens, Rep. Forbes says he went roaming the Capitol looking for partners -- and found no takers.
"We scoured the halls of Congress because we wanted to join up with somebody else who's thought about these issues and who's come up with some ideas, and we kept coming up empty," he says.
Here, then, is the real energy shortage in America. The stunning part of Washington's reaction to $4-a-gallon gasoline is that there has been so little reaction at all. This is as close as the country has been to a genuine energy crisis in 30 years, yet there has been no unifying cry to mount the ramparts as a nation, to rally together to rid America of the curse of oil addiction, to rise to this challenge as America has to others in its history.
INSTEAD, the energy "debate" that has emerged is mostly a lame repeat of 20-year-old arguments over the virtues of offshore oil drilling and a series of congressional hearings on the role speculators have in driving up the price of oil that have nothing to do with actually increasing the production of energy. As presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama are at least trying to rally the country -- Sen. McCain by devoting virtually two whole weeks of his campaign to the topic -- but the effort has served mostly to highlight their differences.
There are several possible explanations for this meekness in the face of challenge, but the most likely, and the most distressing, is this: America and its political leaders, after two decades of failing to come together to solve big problems, seem to have lost faith in their ability to do so. A political system that expects failure doesn't try very hard to produce anything else. If you wonder why voters have made "change" the catchword of this campaign year, that's a pretty good explanation.
This timidity in the face of challenge troubles Rep. Forbes. "Maybe one of the reasons we've developed some of the mediocrity we have is that we aren't thinking bigger," he says. "I really hope for once we can lay aside the partisan bickering, and we can lay aside the posturing."
THE PROBLEM, of course, is that there is little sign that Washington, in its current state of gridlock and partisan paralysis, is capable of doing that. When President Clinton tried to overhaul the health-care system, he couldn't get even a committee vote on his plan in a Congress his party controlled. When President George W. Bush tried to revamp Social Security, he couldn't get even a committee vote on his plan in a Congress his party controlled.
Last year's effort to overhaul the U.S.'s deeply flawed immigration system collapsed what once looked like a rare bipartisan success. President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education program has become a partisan football. An energy bill that passed after much effort earlier in this Congress now seems limp when compared with the threat that energy prices suddenly pose to the American economy.
Washington, in short, has no recent track record in solving big problems. That hardly means the only route for such solutions is big-government programs. Rep. Forbes, for example, is hardly a wild-eyed liberal proposing a bureaucratic solution on energy. He's a conservative Republican who in 2006 won a 100% rating from the Chamber of Commerce for his voting record.
He doesn't argue that government can or should solve the problem for Americans watching in horror as the dollars add up at the gas pump. "Government won't do it for them," he says. "Government can't. But we're saying we can lay the challenge out for the American people."
What he proposes, in short, is that government lead by providing inspiration and incentive. A bill he has introduced lists seven areas where America needs to do more -- gas mileage, energy efficiency, solar power, biofuels, clean coal, nuclear-waste storage and nuclear fusion -- and proposes that government form a national science commission and offer cash incentives to prod academics and private scientists to solve the problems blocking progress in each area. It may not be the perfect answer, but its author hopes it's at least an inspirational start.
Write to Gerald F. Seib at [log in to unmask]<mailto:[log in to unmask]>