TCS Daily

The Posture Caucus Targets the SUV

By Hugh Hewitt - July 18, 2001 12:00 AM

Membership in Capitol Hill's Posture Caucus is a fluid thing. Numbers rise and fall depending upon the issue being debated. Membership hinges on the willingness of senators or representatives to base policy positions solely on the perceived "media consensus" and the apparent direction of polls. When enough talking heads demand that "something be done," the ranks of the Posture Caucus swell, and old issues and debates are swept away before the new conventional wisdom.

A sort of "perfect storm" of factors has occurred in recent months, and the Posture Caucus is in session as a result. First, elite opinion turned on SUVs sometime late in 2000, and it decided that these T-Rexes of the road had become "anti-green." I am not now, nor have I ever been an SUV owner, but it is hardly a mark of dishonor to drive a Suburban. Since my roots are in a GM town in Northeastern Ohio, I even approve of these hometown favorites. I also recall some of my yuppie friends extolling the benefits of seven- and eight-passenger vehicles over five-passenger cars, but that's all gone now, a victim of chassis envy and narrow striping compressing mall parking lots.

Next, the President's energy policy sensibly stressed increased exploration and production as the only realistic approach to the energy needs of the future. The Vice President sensibly pointed out that conservation could hardly be counted upon to solve the energy needs of the new millennium. These events combined to open the Administration's media flank to renewed charges of anti-environmentalism. Democrats who had used up their talking points on arsenic -- recall how Terry McAuliffe fretted over his girls' nighttime drink of water -- seized on the opportunity to blast the GOP as "anti-conservation."

Into these roiling waters drifted the annual appropriations bill for the Transportation Department. The Posture Caucus saw its chance, and it struck a pose.

For the first time since 1995, the House version of the appropriations bill did not include a bar on administrative changes in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. As soon as the door was opened, more than 100 House members signed on to a demand that the Bush Administration hike the mileage standards for light trucks and SUVs. Pressure is building to "do something" to establish conservation credentials, and a demand for an increase in the mileage efficiency requirements for SUVs seems to be the easiest handle to grab.

There is no denying the political cover such a position provides. When a hand goes up at the town hall meeting, and the local environmental activist asks what a lawmaker has done for the cause, a congressman can launch into a windy dissertation on the effort to promote fuel efficiency, thus avoiding the pressing but unpleasant realities surrounding a domestic oil production level that has fallen from 8.38 million barrels per day in 1975 to 6.45 million barrels per day in 1997. On such calculations does the Posture Caucus turn. Before the rush to raise CAFE standards turns into a stampede, there are some other considerations that deserve at least a moment's reflection.

First, if American consumers want higher fuel efficiency standards, they can vote with their purchasing decisions. I am much more concerned with the unGovernor of California's steadfast refusal to deal with hard facts than I am with my neighbor spending too much on a tank of gas. The fact that the government must order the hike underscores the market's indifference to mileage standards.

Next, even CAFE-hikers don't dispute that their proposals will raise the cost of SUVs and quickly lead to job cuts in the automobile industry. The economy is struggling along, near the tipping point for a recession. Is this the time to put a dent in the car business?

Of course, higher CAFE standards mean lighter SUVs. Lighter SUVs mean less safe SUVs. I haven't heard many consumer safety groups arguing for that result. When the fatality rates rise, I doubt the sponsors behind the CAFE hike will be there to take a bow.

Finally, there are the political calculations. I thought the GOP wanted to win Michigan in 2004. And I thought the GOP leadership on the Hill might want to help the President out instead of punting every tough issue onto his plate.

These considerations are being rolled by the momentum of the Posture Caucus, which brings me back to my original point: When conventional wisdom gathers gale force strength, that is precisely the moment at which second thoughts ought to develop as a counterforce. Here's a clue as to just how unwise this CAFE push could be. The sponsor of S.804, the key bill on the Senate side to boost the standards, is California's own Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Its co-sponsors include Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.). With company like that, is the Posture Caucus really where you want to stand?


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