WASHINGTON Never let it be said that Nancy Pelosi isn't principled. Actually, her main principle seems to be that when politics dictate, give up the principles and go with the politics.
So the speaker of the House has decided that a vote on drilling off the nation's coasts might have to happen despite her year of adamant opposition that was still in place only a few weeks ago before Congress left for its August recess. But that was before it looked as though Republicans were succeeding in tagging her Democratic Party with intransigence in solving the nation's energy problems and before polls clearly revealed a dramatic lessening of public opposition to drilling on the Continental Shelf.
In a weekly Democratic radio address to the nation, Pelosi said the House would consider the expanded offshore drilling as part of a broader energy bill. It was a position that Sen. Barack Obama had earlier adopted in an about-face brought on by skyrocketing oil prices. The soon-to-be officially anointed Democratic presidential nominee also said drilling for oil and gas along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and in the Gulf of Mexico off of Florida might have to be included in a comprehensive energy policy.
"We hope our Republican colleagues will join in a bipartisan effort, not only to increase domestic supply but also to help consumers and to protect the environment," Pelosi said, as a rotating group of GOP lawmakers continued a daily drumbeat on the otherwise empty House floor to persuade the speaker to call Congress back to deal with the energy problem.
There's nothing like a dose of political reality to move a politician. For years, Pelosi has been catering to a California constituency that was adamantly opposed to using coastal water exploration to help lessen the nation's dependency on foreign oil, citing dire threats to the environment despite technology that has prevented most such occurrences elsewhere. Their argument against drilling included the contention that it would take a decade to realize any real benefit from drilling. As a result Congress did what Congress does best, it dithered for at least two decades as the amount of domestically produced oil declined and usage increased.
Pelosi said she wanted a bill that would combine any drilling with a release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to immediately lower gasoline prices and action to decrease speculation in energy futures. Tapping the oil reserve has been roundly criticized as a patch on the problem that in the past has produced little benefit beyond a few pennies at the gas pump.
Oil prices have declined some, bringing down fuel costs, which still are well above what most Americans believe is reasonable. Trying to lessen futures speculation, which many believe has been a key factor in climbing prices, may be extremely difficult.
If the past is any pattern, the debate over the entire issue probably won't bring about any tangible bipartisan results until after the November elections and perhaps not even until the new Congress is elected when Democrats are expected to increase their majority. The Republicans certainly want to be able to blame the majority party for this dilemma, and the Democrats can't afford to give up too much ground at the risk of losing a chunk of their liberal constituency. The cynical view is that Congress acts decisively and responsibly only in a crisis; the rest of the time it finds a way to put off most politically explosive action.
But no one believes that lower prices are here to stay or, for that matter, will continue to decline steadily as they have in the past, muting determination by Americans to change their profligate usage. Then, of course, there are China and India, where demand to fuel enormous industrial and social growth, including millions of new cars, has been responsible for much of the soaring cost of oil.
Pelosi's sudden decision to allow a vote on drilling, if it holds, is a major turnaround considering that her opposition to exploration off the California coast dates from the first day she stepped on the House floor in 1987. She said before the recess that permitting a vote was merely an effort to divert attention from President Bush's failed energy policies, which, she charged, have increased the nation's dependence on foreign oil. Bush's defenders, what few of them remain, note that every time he has called for some bipartisan accommodation, Republicans as well as Democrats have refused.Why Pelosi's change of heart? Well, when politics dictate. ...
E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.