Bingaman Remarks on the Upcoming Energy Conference

May 23, 2002
12:00 AM
In a floor speech today, Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman urged progress toward an energy conference. He noted that it has been one month since the Senate passed energy legislation ... voiced frustration at the "delay" in moving to conference ... pointed out that the House chaired the last energy conference and that it's now the Senate's turn ... and articulated a plan on how to have an effective and productive conference. Here's the full text: Floor Remarks on Energy Bill Conference Senator Jeff Bingaman Chairman, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources United States Senate May 23, 2002 Mr. President, last Friday, May 17, marked the one-year anniversary of the release of President Bush’s National Energy Policy. And the day after tomorrow, May 25, will mark the one-month anniversary of the Senate’s completion of its consideration of the Energy Policy Act of 2002. I believe that it is appropriate to take stock of where we were one year ago, where we are today, and what we need to do next to move this process forward. One year ago, when President Bush released his National Energy Policy Plan, his proposal was little more than a glossy brochure. The summary of all the recommendations in the President’s Plan, which appeared as the first Appendix in his report, amounted to a mere 17 pages of text. Most of these recommendations were stated in very broad terms, and only about 20 actually related to legislation. A classic example of the recommendations in the President’s Plan is the following one relating to electricity reform. Here is the electricity recommendation in last year’s plan, in its totality: "The NEPD Group recommends that the President direct the Secretary of Energy to propose comprehensive electricity legislation that promotes competition, protects consumers, enhances reliability, promotes renewable energy, improves efficiency, repeals the Public Utility Holding Company Act, and reforms the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act." That was it for electricity. Now those 44 words include some very good thoughts. I’m sure that a lot of work went into developing them. But it wasn’t something that Congress could immediately turn around and send to the President’s desk for signature. So, over the last year, we have done a tremendous amount of work in Congress, and especially in the Senate, to put real flesh on the bones laid out in the President’s plan. In the Senate Energy Committee, we held over 2 dozen hearings in this Congress on various aspects of energy policy, seeking to get broad and inclusive input into our bill. In the case of electricity, instead of the 44 words contained in the President’s plan, the Senate developed and passed 80 pages of legislative text on electricity reform. Our provisions sought to give real meaning to the general principles of protecting consumers, promoting competition, and promoting renewable energy. We had a lot of help and input from the Administration, but the work was really done here in the Senate. We are now at the beginning of the next phase in the legislative process. That is conference with the House of Representatives. We have a lot of work to do, but it cannot begin until the leadership of the House of Representatives decides who will represent them in a conference. I have to confess that I am getting a little frustrated at the delay in moving to this next phase. When the Senate passed its bill, the House Majority Whip put out a press release calling this body a bunch of "do-nothing Dashclecrats" and stating that "Now, it’s important that we move quickly to work out the differences between the House and Senate bills." Well, I agree with the second part of his comments, but his own colleagues in the House of Representatives apparently do not. Senators Daschle and Lott named our Senate conferees on May 1. After three weeks of silence from the House on who their conferees might be, it seems that all we are getting from the House is a lot of delay. And there is a tremendous amount of work to be done to have a successful energy conference, even before we sit down around a table somewhere. First, we will have to decide how the conference will be organized, including how it will be chaired. We seldom go to conference on energy bills. The last conference on an energy bill, the Alaska Power Administration Sale and Asset Transfer Act, took place 7 years ago, in 1995. The House of Representatives chaired that conference. If one accepts the notion that conference chairmanships alternate between the Houses, then that means that it is now the Senate’s turn to chair an energy conference. And, judging from both the lack of forward motion from the House on naming their conferees and some of the informal comments from the House leadership on their vision of what a conference would look like, I think that there might be some important advantages to Senate chairmanship of the conference. A number of leading members of the House of Representatives seem to be of the opinion that there should be a lot of televised meetings of conferees. I have nothing against openness, but I don’t think that lots of televised meetings would be conducive to actually getting an energy bill out of conference. My prime mission in chairing a conference would be getting a bill, not getting Nielsen ratings. We should regard the time that conferees are actually present in the same room as a limited resource, to be used to promote forward motion, and not grandstanding. Second, there have been rumblings that some in the House leadership might prefer to delay a conference until September. There are so many complex issues to be dealt with in this bill that delay would result in no conference report. I would prefer to see us begin work as soon as the organization of the conference itself was worked out, much along the lines of how issues were dealt with during past energy conferences. I am very much looking forward to learning whom we are supposed to be negotiating with from the House of Representatives. I’m not going to initiate discussions with the House of Representatives, though, that might be regarded as attempts to pre-conference the bill, or parts of it, prior to knowing who all the legitimate participants will be from the House. But once the House has made its selection, I would propose that the conferees from both Houses take the following three key steps. First, we should get the conference leadership from both Houses into a room to get the organization and ground rules of the conference set down as our first order of business. Second, we should have the appropriate Senate and House staffs meet to work out a mutually agreed-to side-by-side presentation of the bills, so that there is common agreement as to which proposals are similar enough to be paired up in the negotiations. For the tax provisions, the Joint Committee on Taxation has already prepared a draft side-by-side that can be reviewed by both sides. We need to get the corresponding treatment for the energy policy provisions done in a consensual manner between the two Houses. Third, we will have to decide whether there will be subconferences; and if so, how many; and what each will encompass. What I have just laid out is a substantial amount of preparatory work that is now on hold. And time is slipping away from us in this Congress. If we adjourn in early October, as is likely, then we may have only 12 or 13 weeks of session left in this Congress. That is less time than one might think, and there will be a lot of other issues that will occupy the time and attention of leading members of this conference. I hope we can get started with the critical organizational phase of the discussions as soon as possible. But there is no way that can happen, without knowing who the conferees from the House will be. I urge my colleagues in the other body to give this high priority so that the real work can begin.