A View from the Hill

By Bob Dinneen | August 01, 2003
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An oft-cited non sequitur jokes, "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out." Well, that's exactly what happened in the U.S. Senate just before Congress adjourned for the summer. As official Washington was girding for another partisan debate over energy legislation with the very real possibility of killing the bill for the year, bi-partisanship broke out. America is grateful.

The effort to pass comprehensive energy legislation this year was mired in political battles over electricity restructuring, fuel economy standards, and environmental regulations. Beyond passage of the renewable fuels standard (RFS) amendment sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), very little progress had been made. With the need to turn the Senate's attention to a bevy of appropriations bills, it was becoming increasingly likely that the energy bill would be postponed until next year, or killed all together.

In the closing hours of the session, however, Senator Daschle made an extraordinary offer, putting aside partisanship and providing a road map that allowed the Senate to pass a bill, very likely assuring an energy bill will reach the President's desk for his signature later this year. Senator Daschle suggested the Senate replace the bill being debated on the floor with the bill that passed the Senate a year ago by a margin of 88-11.

Almost everyone was skeptical. Was the offer sincere? Would the now Republican-controlled Senate take up an energy bill that passed a then Democratic-controlled Senate? And, of course, missing the point of the bi-partisan offer completely, a typical question was who would benefit politically?

All of the questions were answered when, in an equally selfless act, Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., accepted the offer, forsaking his own committee's bill in order to move the process forward. Thus, in a matter of hours and in a remarkable display of bipartisanship, the Senate passed last year's energy bill by an overwhelming margin of 84-14.

From an ethanol industry perspective, passage of last year's bill is terrific news because, just like this year's bill, it includes a five-billion gallon RFS and the small ethanol producer tax credit changes we have been seeking. But from a broader national perspective, all Americans should be proud of two courageous leaders and a Congress that, if for just one brief moment, put short-term political gain aside in favor of the longer-term energy, economic and environmental needs of the country.

The House and Senate will now have to reconcile the two bills in a conference committee to be chaired by Senator Domenici. There is clearly a lot of work still to be done. We will have to assure the inclusion of the tax provisions passed by the Senate Finance Committee earlier this year that restructured the ethanol tax incentive to protect the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund while making the incentives more useable for E-diesel and E85 blends. We will also need to work to accelerate the RFS schedule in the early years to reflect the growth in ethanol production that has been necessary to keep pace with existing state MTBE phase out schedules.

But with the continued leadership of Senators Daschle and Domenici, I for one am confident that we will succeed. Because while I once watched hockey only for the fights, I now know the opposite is possible too!

Bob Dinneen
President and CEO,
Renewable Fuels Association