John Sullivan Defeat Shows Energy Subsidies Are Politically Risky

Republican Rep. John Sullivan's primary loss shows voters don't support renewable energy subsidies.

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U.S. Rep. John Sullivan, left, R-Okla., U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, center, R-Okla., and U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, right, R-Okla., sit together as they wait for the inauguration of Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin in Oklahoma City, Monday, Jan. 10, 2011.

Tom Pyle is the president of the Institute for Energy Research.

Facing a major election loss in post-war Great Britain, Winston Churchill famously quipped that the British people had "a perfect right" to kick him out. "That's democracy," Churchill added.

This week, voters in the Sooner State similarly exercised their most basic democratic right—they gave five-term Oklahoma Republican Rep. John Sullivan the boot. Sullivan now becomes the ninth incumbent this year to lose his congressional seat in a primary. The leading contributor to Sullivan's defeat, according to analysts: His sponsorship of the NAT GAS Act.

The NAT GAS Act was from the outset a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation that put the federal government in the place of investors and consumers. It would cost the U.S. Treasury more than $240 billion over the next 18 years, without any significant reduction in demand for gasoline-powered automobiles. In the end, Sullivan was fighting for more government subsidies, tighter restrictions on American consumers, and greater political favoritism for two of his campaign's biggest financiers—hedge-fund manager T. Boone Pickens and Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

So tempting was the allure of home-state cronyism that even Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn supported pro-NAT GAS provisions in a recent amendment to this year's highway bill. The amendment, of course, failed—perhaps presaging the ultimate demise of Sullivan's signature legislative initiative and his own hope of re-election.

Surprisingly, a number of Sullivan's colleagues have not taken a lesson from his defeat. Just this week, 18 House freshmen—led by Republican Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota—wrote House Republican leadership to request an extension of the Production Tax Credit for wind energy despite clear evidence that the program has failed to stimulate long-term job creation or contribute significantly to America's energy needs. Ironically, one of the letter's recipients, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, has already voiced his support Big Wind's big boondoggle.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Indeed, crony capitalism in Washington can survive an election here and there, but Americans should not be deceived. Politicians who talk of Milton Friedman, limited government, and spending cuts yet work to perpetuate bad energy policies and billion-dollar renewable giveaways are no friends of free markets and consequently are no friends to the economy or the American consumer.

Congress continues consideration of a farm bill loaded with as much as $1.5 billion in spending on energy programs over the next 10 years--including biorefineries, ethanol subsidies, and other taxpayer-funded giveaways to renewable energy firms like Solyndra. Fortunately, democracy always has the last say, and the public disdain for crony capitalism continues to grow.

Sullivan's imminent departure from the House chamber should serve as a cautionary notice to his yet-informed colleagues.

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  • Corrected on : Corrected on 6/29/2012: A previous version of this post mischaracterized the size and the scope of the spending within the farm bill.