Dingell Practicing Cynical Politics

House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) says he will propose a carbon tax program to satisfy those who are calling for higher fuel economy standards and for the U.S. to do more about global warming. The measure, he said on C-Span’s Newsmakers TV program, will include a 50-cent gas tax. But the Congressman, who has been representing Southeast Michigan since the 1950s when he took over the seat held by his Father, is cynical about the bill. Indeed, his reason for presenting it, he says, is to expose how unpopular the measure is with the public.

“I sincerely doubt that the American people are willing to pay what this is really going to cost them,” Dingell said in the interview. Dingell is hoping to quiet members of Congress and environmentalists who want much higher fuel economy standards for automobiles or an energy policy that will incent Americans to demand vehicles that great much higher fuel economy.

The dance that is going on between automakers, Dingell and other members of Congress is disheartening to anyone looking for a meaningful energy policy that will make the U.S. less dependent on foreign energy sources and for the the U.S. to finally act like a world leader when it comes to energy consumption and pollution generation.

His proposal would boost the federal gas tax by 50 cents a gallon and establish a “double digit” tax on carbon dioxide emissions. The fuel tax is now 18.4 cents, unchanged in 14 years.

The contribution of automobiles to the U.S. total carbon footprint is arguable. Some estimate it to be between 15% and 25% of the total output. Houses, office buildings, farms, utility companies, coal plants, etc make up the rest.

There are two issues at hand with the arguments over vehicles and fuel economy. One is that Americans should live cleaner and greener in general to begin to reduce global warming. The other is that it is a measure to get us off Middle East oil, a dependence that constantly gets the U.S. involved in Middle East religious wars and other conflicts. It’s been pointed out that if the U.S. adopted the smaller vehicle market and culture that exists in Europe, driven by high fuel taxes, to raise the average fuel economy of the new-car fleet to 40 mpg, we could get off OPEC oil together.

President Bush and other politicians frequently flick at the message that if the U.S. were independent of Middle East oil, the U.S. would not have to fight costly wars like the one in Iraq. Most politicians only flick at this idea, though, for short-term political reasons. But the message, the idea, is not consistently hammered at. Without a sustained communications commitment, most Americans just won’t get the fact that we are already paying huge gas taxes to protect the source of Middle East oil. It’s being sucked out of our taxes already to pay for the War in Iraq and other foreign interventions. That is adding to the deficit, and costing thousands of American lives.

Dingell is right. When the 50-cent gas tax, which would have the effect of driving greater demand for more fuel efficient vehicles, is presented, there will undoubtedly be a public backlash that will be fueled by talk radio numbskulls like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. It will be presented and sold as nothing more than higher taxes at a time when gasoline already costs more than $3.00 per gallon. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that most Americans will rebel. The ones most in love with their SUVs will write and e-mail their Congressional offices, egged on by ads, no doubt, from the auto industry lobby and the auto labor unions.

No politicians with big voices will attempt to educate the public about the effect of a carbon or gasoline tax on the country’s total fuel consumption. We hear quite often that the U.S. is the “leader of the free world.” But if we can’t even lead ourselves to more realistic and less selfish consumption of energy, and develop a policy that makes the country less interventionist in order to protect oil supplies, then how do we expect developing countries like India, China and Indonesia to listen to us when we tell them that a new coal plant every week in the region is bad for the planet.

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