Neglecting fuel efficiency

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate was once again presented with the opportunity to enact a law that had a chance of actually doing something useful. And once again, it failed miserably.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., sponsored a bill that would have forced automobile makers to raise their fleet-wide average miles per gallon 50 percent during the next 13 years. Current laws require a fleet average of 27.5 mpg for sedans and 20.7 mpg for SUVs, minivans and pickups. Kerry’s legislation would have eliminated the vehicle classes in lieu of a flat 36 mpg requirement, fleet-wide.

Once again ranking corporate profits over the well-being of the American people, senators unleashed a steady stream of misinformation and flawed reasoning in a desperate – and ultimately successful – bid to defeat the bill. By a 62-38 vote, they opted instead for a bill that sets no increase in fuel efficiency and ambiguously directs the Transportation Department to, at some point in the next two years, change fuel efficiency standards “in a way that does not harm the domestic manufacturing industry.” Since the Transportation Department has not raised the minimum miles-per-gallon requirement at all during the last 15 years, there seems little reason to hope the Senate’s action will produce any real results.

The most prominent arguments raised against Kerry’s effort dealt with erroneous fears of safety compromises and government-mandated narrowing of choices presented to consumers. At one point during the debate, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., gestured toward a picture of a subcompact and told his fellow senators, “I don’t want every American to have to drive this car.”

So much for Lott’s faith in American ingenuity.

The notion that the U.S. automobile manufacturing industry is staffed by inept workers incapable of figuring out how to increase fuel efficiency without compromising passenger safety is preposterous, and auto workers should be insulted. Likewise, senators’ portrayal of the higher fuel efficiency standards as a mandate forcing automobile makers to abandon production of all but their most efficient models stinks like only a red herring can.

Kerry’s push for increased fuel efficiency standards was not an attempt to whittle consumer choice down to a Ford Focus or a Geo Metro; his statements honestly supported what he was trying to accomplish. It is disheartening that the majority of the Senate not only advocated against the best interests of their constituents, but also that they felt the need to mask their true intent.