Beyond the Bickering, Bill Lifting Oil-Export Ban Wins Bipartisan Support

Published October 13, 2015

Americans are sick of the bickering in Washington and want both parties to cooperate and get something done. Friday, October 9, offered proof that this can still happen. The house passed H.R. 702, the bill to lift the decades old, and outdated, oil export ban with 26 Democrats, joining the majority of Republicans, and voting for it.

Yes, the Republicans could have passed the bill without the Democrats—but there are strategic reasons why it was important to bring as many Democrats on board as possible. And, getting them on board wasn’t easy; it didn’t happen naturally—especially since, two days before the vote, on Wednesday, October 7, the White House issued a veto threat in the form of a “Statement of Administrative Policy.” It says: “Legislation to remove crude export restrictions is not needed at this time. … If the President were presented with H.R. 702, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.”

Twenty-six Democrats went against the wishes of the president and voted with the Republicans—but the number could have, and should have, been much higher. Getting the companion bill through the Senate will be a heavy lift as the Republican majority there is slim. Because of the threat, a veto-proof majority will be needed in the Senate—which is possible (remember the Keystone pipeline bill lacked only a handful of Democrats to have made it veto-proof). The Washington Post reported: “the measure still faces a Senate that doesn’t appear eager to take up the issue.” A strong number of Democrats supporting the bill in the House gets the attention of the Democrats in the Senate.

I was in the room for the House Energy and Commerce Committee meeting that passed H.R. 702 out of committee. I’ve met with Representatives about the bill. I’ve had some of them on my radio show talking about it. I had the opportunity to speak alongside nearly a dozen Members at a press conference—led by Representative Kevin Cramer (R-ND)—the afternoon before the floor vote. I watched from the gallery of the House Chambers when the bill was passed. While I’ve been a part of this process, I’ve learned a lot about the “process.”  

Here’s what I observed.

The current news about the potential replacement for House Speaker John Boehner has brought a split in the Republican Party to the forefront. But there is an equal, perhaps even greater, divide with the Democrats. And the two sides do have very different views that were on display in the fight for votes in support of H.R. 702.

In both of the votes I observed, Democrats decried the bill saying it would put billions of dollars in the pockets of “Big Oil.” In contrast, understanding that successful businesses mean a strong economy and employment, the Republicans addressed the jobs that have been lost in the oil field—representing hundreds of thousands and real people who are struggling—and touted how H.R. 702 will help.

Bringing these two sides together is difficult—especially given the divergent views within each party.

The split in the GOP, as has been on display, is basically between the new legislators—many of whom are part of the Freedom Caucus—who have been elected since 2010 and who have never had to govern in a world where the Republicans haven’t been in the majority in the House, and the others. These newbies are fighting over ideological tactics. Their voters sent them to Washington to stand strong and don’t want them to compromise. Those who have been there longer, often called: “the establishment,” better understand “the art of the deal”—which requires give and take.

The Democrat split can be simply explained with two words: blue and green. On the blue team are those whose districts contain a high ratio of “blue-collar workers,” who have been hard hit by the bad economy. These voters care about jobs. The greens are made up of members whose votes mirror the views of the environmental—or anti-fossil fuel—movement.

As I’ve previously addressed, the greens indicate that they will vote for lifting the export ban, but, as a part of the negotiating process, they want more green/renewable energy subsidies—something that is anathema to the Republicans who, generally, want less government spending. Inserting, for example, as Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) wants, a permanent extension of the Production Tax Credit for wind energy (which expired on December 31 2014), will totally kill the bill.

Finding a bargaining chip that both parties can accept was a challenge—especially given that the newbies want no amendments whatsoever. However, where there is a will, there is a way.

A coalition of diverse parties, who want to see the oil export ban lifted, realized that exporting U.S. oil will require ships—which means: “maritime.” Jobs in the shipping industry are often in Democrat- as well as Republican-leaning districts. The Maritime Security Program (MSP) was brought up. While exporting oil decreases the dependency of our allies on insecure sources of foreign oil, the MSP provision enhances this security benefit by further ensuring that our allies (and our troops) do not find themselves dependent on insecure foreign-flagged and foreign-crewed vessels. The lift-the-ban bill proved to be an excellent opportunity to do what the defense bill says: enhance the MSP.

Within the Rules Committee a provision for the MSP was married with the bill. As Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, explained at the pre-vote press conference, the MSP is vital to national defense and is something all conservatives should care about. In short, the MSP is like a retainer that is provided to U.S.-flagged and -staffed ships so that, in a time of war, they can/will break the commercial contracts they have, and prioritize transporting materials, equipment, and weaponry to our troops. Since this type of shipping services are only needed in times of war, which is, hopefully, occasional and sporadic, the MSP is an economically wiser choice than keeping a military shipping fleet on stand-by.

Currently, according to a 2011 Department of Transportation study, the MSP provides $3.1 million for each of the 60 enrolled ships that are vital to the mission. These ships cost an average of $12,000-15,000 per day to operate. The retainer has not been updated for inflation since the program was created in 1996. Considering the importance of the MSP, the small increase to $5 million provided for within the lift-the-oil-export-ban bill is a win/win as it supports national security and appeals to the “blue” Democrats.

Unfortunately, in the “process,” this point of negotiation got labeled a “sweetener” for the shipping industry. In the form of the “Amash Amendment,” conservatives launched a campaign to get the MSP provision stripped from the bill—which, due to the split in the party, likely resulted in fewer Democrats supporting the bill. The Amendment didn’t survive, but its presence meant Democrat Representatives could tell their “blue” constituents, “I didn’t vote for the Amash Amendment” and, therefore, support their issues. They could, then, not vote for the bill and tell “green” leaning voters that they didn’t vote for a bill that helped the oil industry. Without the Amendment, the only way to show support for the “blue,” was to vote for the bill.

Following the bill’s passage, its author, Representative Joe Barton, (R-TX), told me: “The maritime security provision helped shore up support for this important legislation. The MSP helps our national defense and saves money by not requiring the Navy to invest in new ships.”

Unfortunately, I saw that the split in the Republican Party made it harder to bring along more support from the Democrat members from districts where “maritime” jobs are important. As the lift-the-ban bill moves to the Senate, hopefully its supporters there will learn from the House and come together in a unified way—able to end the bickering by negotiating and comprising in a mutually palatable way to reach a bipartisan, veto-proof majority in the Senate.

The author of Energy Freedom, Marita Noon serves as the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the companion educational organization, the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE). She hosts a weekly radio program: America’s Voice for Energy—which expands on the content of her weekly column. Follow her @EnergyRabbit.