Lobbying efforts in the Senate over pending White House-supported energy legislation are shaping up to look and feel like the “Apocalypse Now” version of the Vietnam war. Opponents and supporters of the bill are vying for the hearts, minds and letter-writing skills of the public with planned media campaigns that juxtapose the images of recession-era energy horrors, circa 1973, with the ghost of the Exxon Valdez and the plaintive howling of arctic wolves.
Meanwhile, senators are either drawing lines in the sand, rattling filibuster sabers or stopping just short of proclaiming a love for the smell of crude oil in the morning.
“We’re not worried about Washington, we’re worried about North Dakota, South Dakota, Indiana, Montana and New Mexico,” said Bill Kovacs, vice president of environment & regulatory affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We’re going out into the field right now,” Kovacs said of his group’s lobbying efforts to shore up support for Bush’s energy plan in America’s heartland. “This is not going to be a battle won inside the Beltway.”
Kovacs’ organization is part of the 400-member Alliance for Energy and Economic Growth created in May to specifically spearhead industry-lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill in favor of Bush’s energy package. The group spent about $1 million in advertising during the House fight.
That money was chump change considering the dividend it promises to return. The 510-page bill, dubbed Securing America’s Future Energy Act of 2001 (SAFE) and passed by the House in early August, contains $33.5 billion in tax breaks for traditional energy companies while a small percentage of that figure is earmarked for renewable energy technologies. One of the most controversial aspects of the bill is that it would open up about 2,000 acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling.
In addition, the rebuilding and expanding of the nation’s energy infrastructure, as allowed under the bill, would dump $4 to $5 trillion into the U.S. economy over the next 20 years, Kovacs claimed.
Splitting the difference
The battle in America’s Midwest over the President’s energy plan belies another political calculus — the Senate is an animal less easily influenced by money than House members who must balance the rigors of Washington lawmaking with the brutal truth of having to raise an average of $10,000 per day in campaign contributions for an election cycle that comes every two years.
In the end, organized labor and the Teamsters in particular, are given credit for exercising the most political muscle when lobbying for White House energy plan.
Teamster President James P. Hoffa, Jr. often lobbied Democratic members with Mary Matlin, Vice President Dick Cheney’s top lieutenant, in tow, while pundits made wisecracks about the perfect political odd couple, Matlin’s Democratic bulldog husband, James Carville, notwithstanding.
In the end, the Teamsters succeeded in breaking loose enough Democrats to vote with GOP members that SAFE passed the House by a hefty margin.
Some Democratic members groused that the Teamsters had bought the loyalty of those voting for the energy package.
“This is not a balanced bill. This is a special-interest bill,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., after the bill passed. “It’s a reward for the campaign contributions of the energy industry. And boy are they getting a good return on their money.”
But the Teamsters and energy-industry lobbyists face a Senate leadership already predisposed against them.
The ANWR drilling proposal is “dead on arrival,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said after the House passed the SAFE bill. Lieberman said he and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., would lead a filibuster to stop the bill.
“No question that certainly it’s a tough battle in the Senate,” said Teamster Spokesman Rob Black. “However the Teamsters proved the naysayers wrong,” when at every turn they said the bill was dead in the House, Black noted.
Black said the Teamsters approach in the Senate would take much the same tact as it did in the House — building a bi-partisan coalition and try and convince senators to “listen to the facts” not the “rhetoric of our opponents.”
“The Teamsters are going into [the Senate fight] as fired up as we were in the House,” Black said, “and our members are going to write their senators, we’re going to write letters to the editors of newspapers, we’re going to hold rallies, we’re going to do everything we did in the House battle in order to get this energy package passed.”
Black isn’t concerned about the Teamsters being perceived as splitting the Democratic vote. “We work with elected officials that support working families and that’s regardless if there’s a ‘D’ or ‘R ‘or ‘I’ beside their name,” Black said.
Lieberman remains unmoved. During a round of Sunday political talk shows earlier this month, Lieberman said labor’s support of the bill was due mainly to the thirst for short-term jobs.
“The long-term answer is for America to invest in new technologies: Fuel cells, renewable energy which will create, literally, millions of jobs in this century — and secure high-paying jobs,” Lieberman said, “not short-term jobs for drilling.”
Senators that oppose the bill in its current form will “look like Neanderthals… when Americans learn all the facts,” Kovacs said. “And Mr. Lieberman or Mr. Kerry or whomever is running for President is going to have to go on record saying they oppose any new supplies of energy and they’re going to have ... to live with that.”
Breakfast with champions
While the Teamsters helped to push the energy bill through the House, environmentalists found themselves getting rolled in the debate, the groups’ lobbyists now admit.
“In the House, we obviously had a difficult time,” said Robert Dewey, vice president for Government Relations for Defenders of Wildlife. “One of the key elements was the influence of the Teamsters,” he said.
Dewey’s group is also part of a block of environmental organizations that have formed the Save Our Environment Action Center that makes extensive use of Internet-based lobbying and interactive-education efforts.
Defenders of Wildlife also is playing to the public, dubbing the ANWR as “America’s Serengeti” the home of polar bears, musk oxen, migratory birds and caribou among others. All that could be in danger, the group warns, while raising the specter of the ill-fated Exxon Valdez in the public’s mind.
Dewey said environmental efforts during the Senate battle will focus on “the vigorous strength of some of our leading champions” which includes Kerry and Lieberman. In addition, the Senate’s arcane rules also play into the plans of those opposing the Bush energy strategy.
“With the opportunity to filibuster any legislation that might arise out of committee and reach the floor that includes drilling, we’re counting on our champions to mount a successful filibuster and other Senators to support that effort,” Dewey said. However, he also added that “at the moment I think it’s unclear how a vote in committee will fair; I expect it will be close.” That committee vote is expected the week of Sept. 17, he said.
Labor’s potential effectiveness in lobbying the Senate also was downplayed.
“Senators are more insulated than individual House members are from the influence of labor,” Dewey said. “Obviously you have smaller districts that are up for election every two years and susceptible to greater pressure from particular interests groups.”