Democratic News

The weather folks say that it’s supposed to snow today – the first measurable snowfall in our region this season. So, Sen. Bingaman’s contribution in today’s Roll Call is a remarkably timely reminder of the utility of LIHEAP -- the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.


Congress Must Increase Heating Program Funds

By Sen. Jeff Bingaman
Special to Roll Call

This winter, millions of low-income Americans are expected to have an unprecedented need for home energy assistance. With heating costs predicted to rise up to 50 percent, and with hundreds of thousands of hurricane victims still struggling to restore energy services in new or temporary homes, these disadvantaged customers face a looming crisis.

Congress needs to appropriate, and President Bush needs to support, full funding for the Low Income Home Heating Assistance Program. The situation our nation is facing warrants that full LIHEAP funding be included in one of the spending bills that Congress passes before adjourning for the year. It may be our last chance to act before the coldest part of winter sets in.

Due to tight crude oil and natural gas supplies, the Energy Information Administration projects a grim picture for home heating costs this winter. Utility bills for homes heated with natural gas will rise 41 percent over last year, or an average of $306; homes warmed with fuel oil will spend 27 percent more than last winter, or an extra $325; and propane heat will cost consumers an additional 21 percent, or an average $230 more this winter.

Unfortunately, funding for this important program over the past four years has remained stalled at the same level. This year, especially, “level funding” ($2 billion) for LIHEAP will be woefully inadequate.

Three times this fall, bipartisan groups of Senators have offered amendments to provide $3.1 billion in additional funding for LIHEAP, and all three times those amendments have failed on procedural votes. The $3.1 billion in additional funding, together with the $2 billion that President Bush included in his budget recommendations, would have fully financed the program at the $5.1 billion level authorized in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Although these three amendments were unsuccessful, it is important to note that on all three occasions a majority of Senators voted to support additional spending for LIHEAP. This year’s higher oil and natural gas prices have significantly increased royalties and income taxes paid by energy companies to the federal government. In my view, these increased revenues should more than cover the cost of boosting LIHEAP funding to its authorized level.

LIHEAP is a vital safety net for millions of Americans who struggle to pay their utility expenses when energy prices are high — the only federal program to help needy families pay these bills. The government began helping poor and elderly Americans pay these costs in 1974, when an OPEC embargo was driving up energy prices. The Heath and Human Services Department began the aid program in 1982, with $1.9 billion appropriated that year.

LIHEAP funding has remained flat for more than 20 years; when adjusted for inflation, it actually has declined. Last year’s “level funding” was enough to help only 15.6 percent, or about 4 million of the 30 million eligible households. If “level funding” is the best we can do this year, when the United States is facing the largest one-year jump in home heating prices in three decades, there is no way we will be able to come close to helping even that 15 percent of households needing help.

For our most vulnerable citizens, including seniors, the disabled and those on low fixed incomes, big increases in home utility bills can be catastrophic. Insufficient LIHEAP funding will hurt not just them, but also the exceptionally large number of hurricane evacuees who are trying so hard to rebuild their lives.

Rising energy costs disproportionately burden low-income Americans who also are straining to pay for higher food, housing and health care costs. While they consume less energy than others and have lower bills, their incomes are so low that every dollar paid to a utility threatens their ability to put food on the table, buy prescription drugs or pay the rent or mortgage.

The news media, the Department of Energy and various consumer groups have done a good job in communicating that, compared to last year, residential energy expenditures for all fuel types will shoot up this winter. These projected increases will come on top of record gasoline prices this year — a circumstance that already has left many working Americans struggling to pay their energy debts. Unless Congress votes full funding for LIHEAP, fewer needy families will be helped this year.

I certainly recognize the difficult budget constraints that Congress faces. I also recognize that, with sharply higher energy costs this winter, the current funding for LIHEAP will not keep pace with the expected need this season. Congress should act, and act quickly. Americans should not have to choose between heating and eating.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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