In response to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, Congress in 1975 passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which directs the President “to promulgate a rule prohibiting the export of crude oil” produced in the United States. Congress’s oil export restrictions, like virtually all limits on international trade, are bad policy. Nonetheless, in this instance, the Congress at least was heeding the prevailing political winds (if not reason): the OPEC embargo caused public panic, and banning oil exports was a knee-jerk response to the political mood at hand.
As time passed from this initial panic, legislative prohibitions on oil trade made decreasing sense. And during the past five or so years, a time when American production has boomed thanks to a technological revolution colloquially known as “fracking,” the export ban has become downright stupid. It is, therefore, a welcome development that House of Representatives leadership today in Houston is expected to announce a strategy to advance H.R. 702, legislation that would forbid federal officials from imposing or enforcing restrictions on the export of oil. This *common sense* bill was introduced by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) and enjoys healthy bipartisan support.
During a briefing yesterday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked whether the Obama administration has a position on H.R. 702, and his response says a great deal about the sorry state of energy policy in the age of Obama. I’ve reposted his answer below:
MR. EARNEST: [W]e’ve got a position on this, which is that this is a policy decision that is made over at the Commerce Department. And for that reason, we wouldn’t support legislation like the one that’s been put forward by Republicans. And so this is — so for an update on our position, if one is necessary, you can consult with the Commerce Department.
The one thing that I would note is that this policy announcement is being made by Leader McCarthy in front of an organization in Houston that is largely funded by four or five of the biggest oil companies in the United States. So it is pretty clear, once again, where Republicans in Congress and their political benefactors stand when it comes to their energy policy priorities.
[Editor’s note: Here, Earnest is referencing how House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is expected to announce leadership’s support for H.R. 702 today at an oil and gas trade association in Houston.]
The fact is I think Leader McCarthy has an opportunity to demonstrate some true political courage where he could go and stand before that organization and actually offer up something bold but also common-sense, which is to end the billions in subsidies that oil and gas companies in the United States already enjoy, and actually use that money to ensure the long-term success of our economy and the energy sector in this country by making important investments in things like wind energy and solar energy — investments that even some of those oil companies themselves have bragged about making.
Earnest’s extraordinary response has two components that warrant exploration.
First, he states that the administration will oppose H.R. 702, because the purpose of the legislation—ending export restrictions—is “a policy decision that is made over at the Commerce Department.” Let’s unpack this a bit, because it says a lot about this administration’s tendency to accrue power.
As I explain above, Congress in 1975 passed a law (EPCA) whose purpose is to restrict the export of oil produced in the U.S. Today, congressional leadership wants to pass a law that would lift such restrictions. Congress passes a law; Congress rescinds the law. That makes sense to me, but not to the President. According to the Obama administration, it’s not Congress’s place to amend its prior laws. Instead, any such alterations are properly “a policy decision that is made over at the Commerce Department.” That is, these decisions are best left to the Executive Branch. Of course, the administration’s “position” is totally impermissible from a constitutional perspective (separation of powers and all that). Nevertheless, Earnest’s response speaks volumes about Obama’s approach to governance. This administration thinks policy should originate in a second term president, by phone or pen, rather than Congress. [click to continue…]