With Congress on Summer Break, Some Old-Fashioned Political Theater Over Oil Drilling

While Republicans give speeches to an adjourned House, Democrats try to defend a drilling moratorium.

Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House Republicans during a rally on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol introducing their American Energy Act and call for a vote on the legislation before the August adjournment.

Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House Republicans during a rally at the U.S. Capitol introducing their American Energy Act.

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Angered by high gas prices, Ohio's John Boehner, the top Republican in the House, calls this the "Drill-Nothing Congress," as he pushes for expanding oil exploration.

Boehner's wordplay alludes to the "Do-Nothing Congress," which has been around for no fewer than 60 years, thanks to Democrat Harry Truman's low esteem for the Second Branch.

Do-nothing, in this case, is also the subtext of the drill-nothing charge, now that House Republicans have commandeered the House chamber—since its recess began last week—to urge Speaker Nancy Pelosi to put a halt to the five-week break. The Republicans are demanding that Congress come back to vote on expanding domestic oil drilling.

The House floor, for now, is a bully pulpit. The microphones are off, the C-SPAN cameras snoozing, and the lights dim, but dozens of GOP lawmakers and aides are ushering unsuspecting tourists into lawmakers' seats and hectoring the absent Pelosi for high gas prices, for her opposition to additional drilling, and for the recess itself.

The last point is purely a political gambit, since lawmakers want to call off recess as much as they want five-buck-a-gallon gas. But, as Republicans see it, the underlying issue is pure political gold because high pump prices are today's top issue and, by some measures, upwards of 70 percent of Americans favor more drilling.

Indeed, the offshore-drilling issue has thrown many Democrats onto the defensive. They argue that additional drilling is being pushed by the oil industry and would do little to lower the price of gas, but they are struggling to mount an effective political counterattack to an idea that many environmental activists term "100 percent snake oil."

The phrase turned up this week in a full-page ad, run in the Washington Post, depicting President Bush as an old-time traveling medicine salesman hawking phony cures. The Natural Resources Defense Council, which is among the environmental groups opposing more drilling, spent $50,000 to place the ad. One NRDC official, Wesley Warren, characterized the push for more drilling in offshore and wilderness areas as Big Oil's "final land grab before the Bush administration is over." Warren, who worked on environmental issues in the Clinton White House, says environmental groups are meeting regularly and urging their members to use the recess to tell lawmakers they don't want more drilling.

Pelosi and her environmental allies point to Department of Energy analyses indicating that lifting the ban on new drilling would not result in new oil and gas production until 2017 and would have an "insignificant" impact on prices before 2030. "Two cents in savings more than 10 years from now," she has said. Pelosi is urging the president to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, arguing that would trigger an immediate price drop.

A top Democratic aide says that Pelosi believes the public makes this calculation: "Two oilmen in the White House equals $4-a-gallon gas." In public statements, she accuses Republicans of wanting to protect oil company profits and slams the GOP as the "Grand Oil Party." And she counters that Republican proposals amount to "drill-only."

Part of Pelosi's strategy is to run the clock, hoping for a Democrat in the White House and bigger majorities in Congress after November 4. Republicans, though, pledge to keep pushing for a vote, hoping they have an early October surprise.

Back at the Capitol, the tourists, in shorts and T-shirts, seem largely puzzled by the sit-in spectacle. Who can blame them, since a detour into a lawmaker's chair is not part of the standard tour? But as speaker after speaker blames Pelosi for high gas prices, high milk prices, high bread prices, even declining home-ownership levels, audiences applaud, roar in approval, and rise to their feet.

"Her goal is to save the planet," Republican Rep. Scott Garrett of New Jersey intoned. "We need her to save the American family and the American taxpayer and to save the American middle class." This week, he set up an E-mail account so people could register complaints: PainAtThePump@mail.house.gov.