Debate This

This column is not about the presidential debate. It's about Other Stuff. Particularly eye-catching are the updates on the price of gasoline, your overtime pay, why the company most likely to hold the mortgage on your house could go broke, why you're getting peanuts from new tax cuts just passed by Congress and how the government is kicking hundreds of thousands of kids off health insurance while promising not to. Cheer all around.

* The price of a barrel of oil went over $50 for the first time early this week, and the price of gassing up my vehicle, Truck Bob the Ford, is now $36 a pop. According to oil-ologists, this is on account of the unrest in oil-producing countries and rising global demand destabilizing world energy markets. Don't you love the jargon? The petro experts say this ain't gonna get better.

Also Not Helping – in fact, headed in completely the wrong direction – is U.S. energy policy under You Know Who. More than half the oil we use today is imported, much of it from such stable, democratic regimes as Iraq. The Energy Department predicts this will rise to 70 percent in 20 years.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has just put out a new study showing that the five biggest oil companies (ExxonMobil, Total, Shell, BP and ChevronTexaco) reported a $5.5 billion, or 16 percent, increase in profits during the first half of 2004 compared with the same period last year, which was no slouch either. Both ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco posted record second quarter profits in 2004.

In the 1970s, we conserved our way out of an oil crisis. But consumption rose 18 percent between 1990 and 2003 because of stagnant standards of fuel efficiency. "Energy policy in Washington amounts to little more than a gift to energy companies – weakening environmental protections, extending regulatory loopholes, lavishing mammoth tax breaks on the biggest of big guzzlers and creating new barriers to stronger fuel economy standards," says the NRDC.

Public interest groups finally managed to get some records from Dick Cheney's energy task force. Surprise, they show that industry lobbyists not only played a pivotal role in making the policy, they wrote much of it themselves. Judicial Watch obtained maps of the Iraqi oil fields from the energy task force, along with charts, developments, project costs, etc., as well as a list of "Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts." They are dated March 2001. This is of particular interest because the staggering profits of the last three years have left the oil companies with billions of dollars they want to invest in undeveloped world reserves.

There is a better way. Instead of subsidizing the obscenely profitable oil companies, we could put that money into researching and subsidizing new, non-polluting technologies.

* The 6 million of you who will lose overtime pay under the new Department of Labor regulations – a pet cause of business groups – will not be pleased to learn that although the House of Representatives voted against the regs ('tis the season for elections), the R's are fighting against a Senate vote and Bush says he'll veto the bill even if it gets passed.
* When the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and moi are in perfect accord, it either means the End Times are near or we're both right for once. Accounting irregularities at Fannie Mae, the nation's largest backer of home mortgages, may force a "restatement of earnings," a lovely phrase meaning, "Oops, we cheated and got caught."

According to The New York Times, this falls "far short of the level of corporate abuse at Enron," but the company did engage in "sloppy and misleading accounting practices." In 1998, the company deferred $200 million in expenses so executives could receive their full annual bonuses. Sounds like Enron to me.

After I wrote a column about these bad doings a few months ago, I got a call from a public relations firm offering to fly someone from Washington to Austin immediately just to explain to little ol' me why I was ever so wrong about Fannie Mae. This caused me to conclude that if these fools had spent a lot less on PR and lobbying, they'd be much better off.

* Forget the bull about "a middle class tax cut" as a pre-election gift from Congress. The Urban Institute reports the middle 20 percent of earners will get an average tax cut of $162 in 2005 – the top fifth of earners will get an average cut of $1,317. Same old, same old.
* Bush promised at the Republican convention to spend $1 billion to enroll "millions of poor children" in CHIP, the federal health insurance program. Too bad, this week he's returning $1.1 billion in unspent CHIP money despite pleas from the states that they really, really need it. That would cover 750,000 uninsured children nationwide.

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