WASHINGTON - To understand why Americans hold the current Congress in such low esteem, look no further than the energy bill passed last week.
The United States faces serious energy problems. Our dependence on Middle East oil cripples us in the fight against terror. Greenhouse gas emissions are out of control, playing havoc with the climate. High gas prices and gas-guzzling cars squeeze family budgets. Other nations have surpassed the U.S. in the huge and growing market for clean energy technologies.
Yet the energy legislation solves none of these problems. Instead, it is a grab bag of special interest favors, many of which lavish taxpayer dollars on allies of the congressional leadership. The most egregious provision appears to be one inserted into the legislation after the House-Senate conference committee (so members had no chance to vote on it) steering $1 billion to a private consortium in Majority Leader Tom DeLay's district in Texas. But there are many more.
The bill showers tax breaks on domestic oil and gas producers already benefiting from record high prices. It exempts many of these producers from rules intended to protect the quality of our drinking water. It authorizes preliminary steps to explore for oil in sensitive marine areas. Perhaps worst of all, it squanders the opportunity to put forward serious legislation that would actually address our pressing energy problems.
What would serious national energy legislation look like?
First, it would break our dependence on Middle East oil. It is nothing short of a scandal that nearly four years after 9/11, we have failed to take meaningful steps to address this dependence. We know what it takes: improving the efficiency of our auto fleet, developing domestic energy resources and helping build a network of strategic petroleum reserves around the world.
Those who say it can't be done should look no further than Brazil, where drivers can choose between conventional gasoline and cheaper ethanol. The hottest-selling cars in Brazil today are "flex-fuel" - giving drivers a choice of fuel type. During the past several decades, as the percentage of U.S. oil imports has increased, Brazil has weaned itself from foreign oil.
Second, a serious energy bill would bring greenhouse gas emissions under control. With scientists sounding alarm bells about the risks of uncontrolled global warming, the time has come for basic, common-sense measures.
In June, the Senate passed a resolution calling for "mandatory, market-based measures" to control heat-trapping gases. It's time for Congress to translate that resolution into specific legislation that controls greenhouse gases, using a "cap-and-trade" program similar to the one launched in 1990 by the first President Bush to control acid rain, which has been wildly successful.
Third, the legislation would put the United States in the lead again in the global market for clean energy technologies such as wind power and clean coal. Japan, Germany and Denmark have surpassed the United States as vendors of clean energy. But with proper leadership, we can build the U.S. industrial base in this area and create many jobs. The federal government has a critical role in supporting advanced research and helping U.S. exporters compete in rapidly growing foreign markets.
Let's hope Congress will pass a new energy bill worthy of its name.
David Sandalow is director of the Environment and Energy Project at the Brookings Institution.