Clinton signs bill continuing CAFE freeze

Published January 1, 2000

The popular sport utility vehicle (SUV) was at the center of a high-stakes legislative battle that recently ended in a victory for carmakers, autoworkers, and consumers . . . and a defeat for environmentalists.

Though the SUV’s foes suffered a setback in the Senate, the Environmental Protection Agency stands ready to soften the blow, by announcing new emissions standards for so-called light trucks and tougher sulfur requirements for diesel fuel.

On September 16, the Senate, by a vote of 55 to 40, rejected an amendment sponsored by Slade Gorton (R-Washington) that would have allowed the administration “to study” the advisability of lifting Congress’ mandated freeze on Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Gorton had tried to attach his amendment to a popular transportation funding bill that enjoyed wide bipartisan support, thanks to the pork it contained.

Introduced in the mid-1970s at the height of the energy crisis, CAFE established a new federal scheme for regulating the average fuel economy of an automaker’s entire fleet of cars and light trucks. Currently, CAFE standards are 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) for cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks, a category that includes SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks. Congress froze CAFE standards in 1995, and the Gorton amendment was an effort to lift that freeze.

Given the administration’s–and particularly EPA’s–hostility to SUVs, few doubted that the study Gorton proposed would have resulted in tighter fuel economy standards for light trucks. SUVs, seen as “gas guzzlers,” are viewed as otherwise environmentally unfriendly because their emissions are higher than those of smaller vehicles.

Environmentalists were initially encouraged by the closeness of the vote, and they urged President Clinton to veto the giant transportation funding bill unless the Gorton amendment was restored. They noted that the 55 votes in favor of extending the freeze on CAFE for another year was far short of the two-thirds necessary to override a veto. But their hopes were dashed on October 12, when Clinton, despite an intensive lobbying campaign by green groups, signed the transportation bill.

Counting electoral votes

In the end, political considerations of the most narrow kind trumped whatever environmental arguments the White House may have had with respect to lifting the freeze on CAFE standards. SUVs, minivans, and pickups now account for 50 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S., a figure expected to rise in the years to come. Any tampering by Washington that would make SUVs more expensive, thereby putting them out of reach of eager consumers, could affect jobs in the auto industry.

As noted by Jon Pepper in the October 3 issue of the Detroit News, the automobile industry has a substantial presence in Michigan, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, Alabama, Indiana, and the Carolinas. “How [Vice President Al] Gore could lose these states and still win the election was shaping up to be a challenge that was even more difficult than his invention of the Internet,” Pepper observed. The eleven states with a major auto industry presence have just over 200 electoral votes–more than two-thirds of the 270 needed to elect a president.

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.