Comprehensive mistakes

Nov. 15, 2010
John Boehner deserves applause for a mostly overlooked change he has promised to make as speaker of the House of Representatives in the 112th Congress.

John Boehner deserves applause for a mostly overlooked change he has promised to make as speaker of the House of Representatives in the 112th Congress. In a Nov. 5 article in the Wall Street Journal, the Ohio Republican wrote, "The next speaker should put an end to so-called comprehensive bills with thousands of pages of legislative text that make it easy to hide spending projects and job-killing policies." His hope is proper for the reason he cites and more.

Comprehensive bills, agglomerations of loosely connected initiatives, do give lawmakers the chance to sneak political favors into law. The worst of them are too long and cumbersome for most people, including lawmakers, to read. That's one reason lawmakers like them. Another is the appearance of sweeping triumph. Lawmakers like affiliation with sweeping triumphs. So Boehner stirs up a noble scuffle—and not just with Democrats—when he challenges this malign fusion of subterfuge and grandiosity.

Camouflaging error

But comprehensive bills don't just provide cover for parochial shenanigans. They frequently camouflage broad error of policy. Their complexity becomes fodder for political deal-making, which becomes the focus of attention. And industries find themselves forced to support broad measures to which they otherwise would object in order to win specific benefits. Large mistakes thus go unnoticed—or ignored.

This has happened twice recently with energy. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT) is remembered as a multifaceted product of bipartisan compromise. The legislation addressed a wide range of energy sources with a rich menu of tax incentives and mandates. It contained elements favored by oil and gas companies and thus won support from parts of the industry.

EPACT also steered energy policy toward a new and questionable destination. With the imposition of renewable fuel standards, including volumetric mandates for ethanol in gasoline, and aggressive requirements for energy-use reductions in appliances, it thrust the government back into energy markets from which it had been mostly absent since the 1980s. Few questions arose about the practicalities of enforcing supply mandates or about the government's abysmal record in the area of fuel selection. EPACT was comprehensive legislation, after all, the product of holy bipartisanship.

Then came the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA), in which Congress raised and complicated renewable fuel standards, toughened fuel-mileage requirements for new cars and trucks, and mandated still more energy conservation. Like EPACT, EISA was comprehensive energy legislation. But it lacked EPACT's bipartisan glow. EISA was the work of a Congress newly controlled by Democrats eager to strengthen the governmental incursion into energy markets that had been reinstated by EPACT.

One legacy of this earthquake beneath energy policy-making is a large and growing requirement for ethanol, which, according to the Congressional Budget Office, costs taxpayers $1.78 for every gallon of gasoline displaced. An enforcement jam looms as mandate volumes approach the absorptive capacity of the fuel market. And the requirement is increasingly recognized as not only a sump for taxpayer money but also as an upward force on food prices and overall impairment of environmental quality. A clear preview of the consequences might have prevented this fiasco. But lawmakers were preoccupied by comprehensive legislation—and their politically motivated desire to enrich agricultural interests.

Focusing attention

The Republican electoral victory that will make Boehner the House leader in January stymied the worst energy ideas pushed by vanquished Democrats. Energy legislation nevertheless remains under discussion. And the discussion includes renewable fuel standards for power generators.

Focused attention, the kind of attention too often precluded by the do-everything-at-once approach to legislation, would point to ethanol as a mistake to be avoided with renewable energy in other applications. Ethanol, though, is a bipartisan folly. Lawmakers not wanting to admit error will seek refuge in comprehensive fog when energy returns to the agenda. Boehner should keep his promise and not let them do it. The oil and gas industry should help him maintain resolve.

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