ImageIt’s not often that I feel embarrassed for political leadership in our country, but such a moment occurred last week when both houses of Congress held hearings on oil and gasoline prices. Executives from BP America, Shell Oil, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Conoco-Phillips were subjected to angry grilling from Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Arlen Specter (R-PA), Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and others.

On Friday, May 23, the House of Representatives got their licks in, too. The invective was hip-deep, with congresspersons castigating Big Oil for “obscene” profits and salaries while people are “suffering”. In their turn, executives charged Congress with causing today’s high prices by blocking development of known deposits in Alaska and offshore in the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. One executive observed that it was presumptuous to ask other countries to increase their oil-production when we won’t retrieve our own resources.

The piece de resistance was Maxine Waters’ (D-CA) attempt to get John Hoffmeister, CEO of Shell Oil, to promise that gas prices would “absolutely” decrease if companies could drill in the ANWR or off U. S. Coasts. In reply, Mr. Hoffmeister said he could “absolutely” guarantee that $5-a-gallon gas will soon look cheap unless Congress opens those areas to development. Miss Waters shot back that “…this liberal would be all about socializing…uh, uh… basically taking over…and the government… running all of your companies.” An unidentified woman seated on the hearing panel covered a smile as Miss Waters made her explosive remarks.

Big Media (excepting Fox) have delicately avoided replaying Miss Waters’ desperate attempt to wiggle free of the socialization “tar baby”, but the clip is recorded on the Internet. (I invite my readers to watch their “government” in action at A blogger-firestorm has resulted from Miss Waters’ few seconds of unguarded honesty. No doubt she wishes that she could retract them, but the cat is out of the bag.

Miss Waters is probably in no difficulty with her home district (35th-California) over her declaration, as voters there have sent her to Congress for eight terms. But she might look back wistfully on those comments as the instant when Democratic control of the Congress unraveled. Henceforth, Americans will know (if they ever doubted it) what radical Democrats want to do. Our future is ever-higher prices (and not a drop more oil) if the Dems get their way. A bill sponsored by Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) would restrict gasoline use and raise prices in order to lower carbon dioxide emissions as a means for controlling global warming. No Democrat that I know of seems inclined to do more than talk about gasoline prices.

A blog connected with the Maxine Waters “socialization” clip contained 31 pages of comments. I read only the first page of about 50 notes. A common theme was the question – seriously raised – of whether Maxine Waters is really of sound mind. One blogger said she acts like she has an IQ of about 80. Others said we get the government we deserve when we elect “crazies” like her to the Congress. (Members of my family probably thought I had gone round the bend, too, as I exclaimed over some of the bloggers’ remarks.)

Maxine Waters is known in the halls of power, but not for stupidity. In 2005 and 2006, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CRE) in Washington named her one of the “most corrupt” members of congress. CRE said, “Her ethics issues arise from her exercise of power to financially benefit her daughter, husband and son.” Miss Waters’ daughter, Karen, charges politicians fees to include them on mailers (sent to Los Angeles constituents) that show her mother’s support for them. Karen has received $450,000 from such fees; Waters’ son, Edward, has received $115,000. Rep. Waters’ husband, Sidney, profited from his wife’s position by working as a consultant for Siebert, Brandford, & Shank, a firm seeking government investment. Sidney Williams earned $500,000 from this consulting, which amounted to introducing Siebert to politicians his wife supports. CRE claims that this violates House ethics rules for family members’ financial gains.

In a way, this charge of corruption is a relief, because otherwise one would have to conclude that our senators and representatives are simply morons. Their grasp of the law of supply and demand, why businesses operate (i.e., for profit), and why prices increase when perfectly good supplies of oil remain untapped appears tenuous, at best. An unusually spirited response by oil executives on the coastal and Alaskan drilling seemed to go right over congressional heads. Watching the posturing over prices, salaries, and “windfall” profits – especially, threats to tax the latter – made me feel not just embarrassed, but nauseous. The inmates are running the asylum here. What they do (and fail to do) hits us directly in the wallet. If this is what passes for intelligence in the U. S. Congress, we are obviously in deep, deep trouble.

It is no surprise that the public’s approval-rate of the Democrat-controlled 110th Congress is the lowest ever recorded (18%) – even lower than Mr. Bush’s positives of 29%. Essentially, 82% of voters figure if a meteor were headed for the Congress, most members would be too dumb to get out of the way. Another poll says 82% of Americans think the country is headed in the “wrong direction”. Is it a coincidence that the figures are identical? I think not.

Lately, I haven’t seen much of the “Bush is a moron” screed that has been a blog-staple for years. Why not? Perhaps the public is diverted by the spectacle of the presidential race. Or maybe we just have BIAM-fatigue. Or has the shock of an $80 fill-up at the gas pump crowded out all other considerations? Like the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight, seeing your discretionary income go into the gas tank concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Whatever the case, Mr. Bush can’t get off the hook entirely. It’s true that he can’t do much about oil prices or supply, but this doesn’t mean he can do nothing. The power of the presidency is still available to him. I really can’t see why he doesn’t use it to issue an Executive Order opening the ANWR and offshore areas for oil-drilling – with a stipulation that existing Environmental Protection Agency regulations will apply. Such an action could easily be justified on the basis of “national security”. Nowhere does the Constitution say the president has to sit idly by while an external threat destroys the nation’s economy.

Some economists believe that this single warning shot across the bow of the international oil market could crash the price of oil to $60 a barrel or lower. It would signal that we intend to do something about oil prices. Current reports mention “new” speculators buying futures on 850 million barrels of oil – in excess of current needs – in a clear attempt to corner the market and inflate prices. If true, it means the market is on a “bubble” that is just waiting to pop. A decisive act could do it. The crash, when it comes, will be great. (“So sue me,” Mr. Bush might say.)

Opponents could sue if Mr. Bush takes this action, but I don’t see courts having authority to veto presidential executive orders unless they are clearly unconstitutional. Congress can certainly try to reverse an EO, but they would look pretty silly trying to push the price of oil back up, after it has crashed. Even Democrats would be able to see the unpopularity of such a move.

It’s possible that politicians of both parties are playing “chicken” with high oil prices: Democrats hoping $200-a-barrel oil will destroy GOP election-prospects in the fall; and Mr. Bush waiting for the opportune moment to crash the oil market. Either or both could be true, but right now both Congress and the president look like a chain of fools – dithering, posturing, doing stupid things, and essentially “fiddling” while Americans bleed to death at the gas pump. It’s the summer of our discontent. We can do better. In November it will be up to us to see that we do.