Blame obsession won't change the price of gasoline

The US Constitution gives Congress plenty of work to perform. So why do lawmakers keep adding to their load?

Bob Tippee

The US Constitution gives Congress plenty of work to perform. So why do lawmakers keep adding to their load?

In fact, the Constitution is notably specific in its expectations.

In Section 8, it provides a long list of congressional powers and, by implication, responsibilities. The chores range from punishing pirates and maintaining a navy to passing laws.

The list's top item seems to be the favorite. It's the one about imposing taxes.

Nowhere does the Constitution instruct representatives and senators to affix blame for the sour turns of events that occasionally befall the nation.

Yet lawmakers spend a lot of time on blame, especially when the sour turn of events involves the price of gasoline.

Since the landmark Gulf of Mexico hurricanes of 2005, lawmakers have been blaming oil companies for the gasoline price increases that so thoroughly anger so many of their constituents.

More recently, they have made "speculators" targets of high-price blame, along with regulators of commodities trading.

All this blame-fixing creates the illusion that Congress is doing something about gasoline prices. In reality, of course, there's little it can do that wouldn't make things worse.

Oil companies don't set the price of gasoline. Neither do speculators or trading regulators.

Markets set oil prices. If blame must be assigned, economic arithmetic suggests it belongs to anyone who contributes extravagantly to demand or who in some way limits supply.

In the former category belong motorists who drive senselessly large vehicles, for example. The latter characterization applies chiefly to lawmakers who discourage oil and gas exploration with bans on federal leasing and other such folly.

But, of course, most people would rather bathe in hot oil than admit they're wrong. And complicity in national malaise represents no small offense.

So profligate consumers will probably stay angry at everyone else while their elected officials hold hearings, make pompous speeches, and point fingers. It's a self-reinforcing cycle of constitutionally protected delusion that excuses participants from the need to learn anything.

So they won't learn, no matter how deeply the policy mistakes they instigate hurt national interests. Who, after all, can blame them?

(Online June 13, 2008; author's e-mail:

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