Editorial June 27, 2014

TheWeekinCongress.com

Editorial

“The bill’s title is duplicitous because the bill content does not deliver the promise the title makes.”

There is that old saying in Washington that, for many issues, there is the story behind the matter and then there is the version released to the public. Similarly the titling of bills can be less about the bill’s content and more about gaining support on the title alone. Such appears to be the case with HR 4899, the title of which promises lower gas prices at the pump.

HR 4899 is a complicated bill in the sense that it incorporates five House bills but sorting through those proposals one is hard pressed to find the part where the price of gas at the pump goes down.

The question the bill title raises about lowering gasoline prices is, “How?” and the answer offered is in the bill’s explanation of itself  “To lower gasoline prices for the American family by increasing domestic onshore and offshore energy exploration and production…” The ‘public story’ the bill and its title offers is that if we increase ‘domestic onshore and offshore energy exploration and production’ the price of gasoline will go down but the real story is that under the bill we may allow more drilling (to include the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska) and nothing more than that.

While the bill title and content suggest that more available oil and gas would, by market forces, lower the cost to the consumer that is not likely if we consider the hydro-fracking extraction techniques used in leases throughout the country that have produced a natural gas glut but the price of the stuff has not fallen. Equally, domestic oil production is up and gas prices remain unchanged.

The bill’s title is duplicitous because the bill content does not deliver the promise the title makes.

While HR 4899 will not, on its own, lower gas and gasoline prices to the consumer, it could. Congress would have to do two things it seems, considering the absence of legislation to do so, Congress wants to avoid doing; it would have to recognize that the US has enough resources to become an energy exporter giving us a larger role in the world marketing and pricing of those commodities. The second is to set a cap on the price of gas and gasoline to US consumers and assure that the price would be lower than what the global markets would charge. There is a clear justification for this; the resources are being drawn from public land so the public should benefit.

The results of the US taking a global role and capping energy prices to US consumers would be a significant shot in the arm for those individual Americans and the Nation; lower fuel prices leaves more money in the pocket of the consumers and could lower the cost of many consumer goods transported by gasoline or diesel power. The use of natural gas by utilities to produce electricity should lower the cost of that energy to the consumer simply because it would cost the utilities less to generate it. And, if done right the increase in revenues from exports and sales could produce a significant revenue stream to the Treasury.

It should be noted that another bill the House passed this week, HR 6, does lean in the right direction as stated in the bill report “Although the economic benefits of LNG exports are significant, they may be exceeded by the geopolitical benefits. By becoming a natural gas exporter, the U.S. can supplant the influence of other exporters, like Russia and Iran, while strengthening ties with our allies and trading partners around the world. U.S. LNG also can help the developing world by providing a much-needed source of affordable energy, and offer those countries pursuing environmental objectives the option of using clean-burning natural gas.” Once again, though, the bill pitches that outcome particularly as a tool for foreign policy to help developing countries but gives no factual details on how American energy consumers will actually benefit from a US energy export status.

The House Majority position on these consumer issues was most evident when an effort in the interest of consumers was made in the motion to recommit the bill, the last chance to amend the bill before vote on final passage. The motion would require “…that any lease issued pursuant to the underlying bill specify that crude oil or natural gas produced under such lease may be exported only if the Secretary of the Interior determines that exporting such commodities will not increase the price of gasoline or home heating oil for American consumers.” The motion failed 177 to 235.

The Lesson Congress Should Learn from the VA Scandal

By Lee H. Hamilton

“Congress is proposing dramatic changes that could have benefited from more thorough consideration.”

Hamilton

Hamilton

Like other federal scandals before it, the mess involving VA hospitals has followed a well-trod path. First comes the revelation of misdoing. Then comes the reaction: a shocked public, an administration on the defensive, grandstanding members of Congress. Finally, major reform bills get introduced, debated, then put aside when the heat dies down, or the target agency gets more money thrown at the problem.

With the VA, we’re at the reform part of the cycle. The House and Senate have each passed their own legislation to fix the VA’s health system, including a massive infusion of money — at least $50 billion a year — to allow veterans to seek private health care. Fiscal watchdogs are crying foul, and the measures have ignited a furious debate over whether Congress should cut other programs. In its rush to address public outrage, Congress is proposing dramatic changes that could have benefited from more thorough consideration.
The irony is that this need not have happened — not with the VA, nor with the IRS or FEMA, or any of the other cases in recent years where the federal bureaucracy proved to be dysfunctional and Congress rushed in with a half-baked fix. Mostly what is needed is for Congress to do its job properly in the first place.
This means exercising its oversight responsibilities and catching problems before they mushroom. Diligent oversight can repair unresponsive bureaucracies, expose misconduct, and help agencies and departments become more effective. A lot of federal employees are doing good work, including at the VA; Congress needs to encourage that work while ridding the government of shoddy practices.
To do this, it first needs to know what’s happening. Each committee and subcommittee with oversight responsibility should be keeping track — on a close, even intimate basis — of the department and agencies in its purview. Performance, budget, personnel, management challenges, major and minor problems: members of Congress ought to be experts on them all. They should also listen carefully to their constituents and interest groups focused on the performance of a particular agency, which are often in a position to give Congress valuable information. Understanding the facts, working cooperatively with the federal agency, and anticipating problems is a far more useful approach than Congress’s usual pattern of throwing up its hands at a scandal and blaming everyone else for the problem. The crush of demand for VA services in the wake of two wars was easily foreseeable. Had Congress been on its toes, it could have reacted to it.
Congress must also get serious about reforming the federal bureaucracy. It needs to be careful not to indulge in bureaucrat-bashing, but federal managers do need more flexibility with personnel systems than they currently enjoy. Federal employees deserve to feel they’re being listened to, respected, and treated fairly, but management also must have flexibility to hire and fire, and to handle personnel problems proactively. Congress also has to insist that these agencies are training, recruiting and retaining the necessary talent.
These are immense agencies. The VA is the nation’s largest health-care system. In 2012, it dealt with 83.6 million outpatient visits. Its proposed budget for 2015 is $164 billion, and it employs more than 300,000 people. This is work on a scale most of us can barely imagine. Mistakes are bound to happen.
This may be an argument for thoroughgoing administrative reform, but it is also a fact Congress can’t ignore: if it wants federal agencies to work better, it has to work tirelessly to understand problems and address them before they explode. Does the agency have adequate resources? How can it control bloat and tighten the gap between the people at the top and people on the front line? Are there problems that need addressing right now? Congress cannot eliminate politics from this oversight process, but politics should not drive the whole oversight enterprise.
The point is that many failures of the federal bureaucracy can be avoided with robust congressional oversight. It’s a crucial part of improving the performance of government, and Congress has a duty to get ahead of problems, not lag constantly behind. Unless it’s willing to accept its responsibility for diligent oversight, the next scandal is only a matter of time.

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.