While most of the media attention on Capitol Hill last month focused on Medicare reform, Congress came closer than a pig's whisker to passing one of the most offensive bills to reach the Senate floor in recent memory. And there, standing cheek-to-jowl with the lobbyists who loaded it up with pork, was Oregon's junior senator, Gordon Smith.
President Bush's long-awaited energy bill was a toxic joke, dressed up as a Christmas tree, starting with the $1.5 billion tax break for the nuclear industry and the $2 billion bailout of oil companies that have polluted water supplies with the fuel additive MTBE.
But there were plenty of outrages to go around.
Two-thirds of the $23 billion in tax breaks were slated for fossil-fuel producers, three times what President Bush had asked for. It had only token incentives for conservation or renewable energy and did nothing to raise fuel-efficiency standards. There was even a clause giving a tax break to four shopping malls--one of which includes a Hooters restaurant, famed for its scantily clad buxom waitresses--in the districts of influential lawmakers.
That fact prompted Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell to deride the bill as a handout for "Hooters and polluters." Across the river, fellow Dem Ron Wyden blasted the bill as "a hodgepodge of subsidies for the politically well-connected."
Of course, it's no surprise that tree-loving Bush-whackers from the Left Coast were whining like a well-oiled weed-eater. But this bill also infuriated conservatives from sea to shining sea.
"This was an energy bill that busted the budget," said New Hampshire's Sen. John Sununu, a Republican whose dad worked for Bush No. 1 and whose state has been hit hard
by MTBE. "[It] distorts markets, distorts investments and tries to micromanage the American economy."
Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, dubbed the measure the "Leave No Lobbyist Behind Act."
Even in central Illinois, where farmers stood to benefit from a mandate to double ethanol production, the stench was too much. "If the bill passes you will know why, and it's not because it will make the nation less dependent on foreign oil," wrote the Peoria Journal Star. "It is because it oils the powerful."
And what about Smith? After the House passed the bill in mid-November, he applauded, saying it would help the Northwest's renewable power sources: wind, geothermal and hydro.
"There's lots of green stuff in these tax credits," he told The Oregonian. "This is a bill that incentivizes reliability and renewability of our energy sources."
He was among those senators who voted to keep the bill alive on Nov. 21, though his enthusiasm seemed to dim. His spokesman, Chris Matthews, told the Associated Press his boss, though troubled by some aspects of the bill, was hoping it could be fixed.
Kind of an odd position for a Republican who campaigned as a guy who could protect your pocketbook and the environment. A guy who supported his president's income-tax break but opposed his plans to drill in Alaska.
What came over him? Maybe it was the visions of short-shorts dancing in his head. Or maybe, when Smith heard the bill's backers propose a subsidy for Hooters, he thought they were talking about spotted owls.