Editorial September 13, 2013




Taxpayers have every reason to be confused when it comes to energy. We continuously hear how we must ween ourselves away from buying foreign oil when, in fact, we buy more petroleum from Canada and Mexico (an OPEC country) than from overseas.

We accuse (when an incident in the Middle East causes gas prices to rise) oil companies of bilking us over a minor incident when, in fact, gas prices rise when speculators enter volatile markets looking for huge profits on short sales and options.

We seem to think that relying more on solar and bio-mass energy will reduce the price at the plug only to realize that despite the lower cost of acquiring such energy it is still the electric and gas companies that process and deliver it to our homes and businesses and they are not going to work cheap.

We heard ten years ago that the world petroleum resources; the availability of oil that can be extracted inexpensively is on the decline only to hear in recent years of enormous resources off the coasts of Brazil and Cuba and further out in Russia (Not to mention what lays in wait under the Arctic masses.)

The fact is that energy is a critical commodity we can not do without even if we stop using it to fuel autos. It is part of most of our house furnishings and appliances, will always, then, be in demand and will never come cheap unless someone comes up with that curious device in Ayn Rands’ Atlas Shrugged that gathers all the energy we need from the air around us. So what is the answer to surviving this complicated racket? Use less energy because less demand has an immediate response of lower prices in the energy market. So you have to turn down the AC and turn down the heat, use less hot water, and so on.

To that end we can look favorably on S 1392, a bill working its way through the Senate this week and next that not only gives the Department of Energy clear directives for buildings and building accessories that are energy efficient, the training to build those buildings and reasonable money for research and training, it also puts the whole thing forth as an option for State and Tribal Governments to participate, not a mandate.

S 1392, proposed separately from the more complicated and politically-charged Energy and Water Appropriations bill, has wisdom; the wisdom to recognize that despite discovery of oil resources worldwide, those resources, too, will be used up and the more difficult to extract and so higher-priced oil products is our future. And we will see an escalation of military action where the oil is, the cost of those excursions and the cost of caring for veterans decades after. Should the bill pass the House and be taken seriously by the State and Tribal governments it serves, it is still a long haul to a nation of energy efficient buildings. Now is a better time than later to get this started.

RH McElroy


Congress and Syria

“Presidents should not get a free pass on foreign affairs, but neither should Congress get to avoid declaring itself. “

By Lee H. Hamilton



As Washington swirls with proposals, counter-proposals, and political brinksmanship in response to diplomatic efforts on Syria, the situation has a lot of people scratching their heads. Couldn’t President Obama and Congress have handled this differently?

I prefer to take a step back and ask a different question. Given that we are stronger as a country and our foreign policy more effective when the President and Congress forge a unified response to an international crisis, how can the two branches of government work together less chaotically to confront a dilemma like this one?

Let’s put a possible congressional vote on Syria in context. Washington has long been divided over the power to use American military force, thanks to ambiguity in the Constitution itself: it gives Congress the power to declare war, but makes the President commander-in-chief. The last time Congress formally used its war powers was during World War II. Ever since, as we’ve engaged often in military action, it has ceded authority to the President. It tried to regain lost ground with the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which passed over a presidential veto and which no President since has considered constitutional, but it has been a losing battle. Grenada, Kosovo, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Libya — all were launched by presidents without prior congressional authorization.

So I’m encouraged to see the possibility of a real debate on Capitol Hill on Syria, on what to do when another country uses chemical weapons, and on the projection of U.S. power. Congress should have returned much sooner from its vacation to address issues of such obvious national importance. But at least it’s stepping up to the plate in a way it has preferred to avoid before now.

For let’s be clear. Presidents should not get a free pass on foreign affairs, but neither should Congress get to avoid declaring itself. On such difficult issues in the past, Congress has preferred to sidestep its constitutional responsibility, defer to the President, and then snipe from the sidelines when things go wrong. It has done so repeatedly not just on military issues, but on such matters recently as developing a national cyberwarfare strategy — which it failed at, leaving a matter of critical national security to the President — and on the NSA’s surveillance of Americans’ electronic communications, which members of Congress in the know never saw fit to bring up for public debate, even though it amounts to the largest expansion of government power in recent history.

This time, for better or worse, is different. The arguments both for and against a limited use of American force are reasonable, and congressional leaders are correct when they say this is a matter of conscience. I happen to believe that the United States’ credibility in the world is at stake here and that restoring an international norm against the use of poison gas is important. My guess is that, should a full-fledged debate take place, members will acquit themselves well.

What I don’t want to see is a chaotic process that leaves the U.S. appearing divided and indecisive, with the President forced to wonder how to “consult” with a disorganized Congress in which power is diffused. There is a better way, but it requires a regular mechanism for consultation. A few years ago, a bipartisan National War Powers Commission, of which I was a member, came up with a pragmatic framework that would create a routine process for the President and Congress to follow. It would require the President to consult with congressional leaders before any military action expected to last more than one week — and then would require Congress to declare itself, either by voting to approve action or, if that resolution fails, to allow for a vote to disapprove military involvement.

Had this structure been in place already, a high-stakes vote on Syria wouldn’t seem so unusual and the consultative process would have been far less messy. My hope, once this is over, is that the idea will gain greater currency. When international crises arrive, a routine process that’s allowed our political leaders to build credibility with each other would save them a lot of heartburn.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.