If you ever wanted to see a perfect example of the theater of the absurd, then look in on Congress' arrogant grilling of Big Oil executives. The absurdity is replayed every time the market price of oil goes through the roof, followed by soaring gasoline, heating and pump prices.
Our lawmakers were at it again Wednesday, reaming out executives from the nation's four big oil companies. ExxonMobil, BP America, Chevron and Conoco were, as always, accused of making too much money -- or, as demagogues prefer to call it, "windfall profits." And, again, hot-headed House members threatened to raise the firms' taxes or, in their terminology, "remove the subsidies."
Whenever businesses make what Congress believes to be too much money, they define it as "subsidies," as if all the money in the nation belongs to the government.
Understand this: Any "windfall profit" grab by Congress would only dampen companies' investments into renewable fuels and lead to even higher prices at the pump. Working Americans who invest in mutual funds or IRAs, or participate in pension plans, could be hurt, too. They may not realize that a lot of their own money is tied up in Big Oil from which they benefit, directly or indirectly, from the firms' profits and generous dividends.
Time and again, Big Oil has been investigated by both government and independent agencies for conspiring to fix prices, hiding profits, or in some way acting against the public interest, and every time the probes come up empty.
In fact, Congress is more to blame for pump prices heading toward $4 a gallon than anything the oil companies are doing. As the Big Oil execs pointed out to their inquisitors, the best way to bring down the price of oil is to increase supply. But Congress disallows companies from drilling for domestic oil off 85 percent of U.S. coastal waters or in Alaska's oil-rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Nor does Congress favor boosting the nation's refinery capacity, so naturally we become more dependent on foreign sources of oil and refinery to fuel our economy and transportation needs. Congress also is dragging its feet on developing more environmentally friendly nuclear power to meet our energy needs.
One reason Congress keeps jumping on Big Oil is because Big Oil is as unpopular with the public as Congress is. Yet the real villain behind endlessly rising oil prices is OPEC -- the cartel of oil-producing nations, mostly in the Mideast, who keep oil prices artificially high.
To its credit, Congress is catching onto this fact, telling our Mideast friends this week, including Iraq, that U.S. military units over there are being charged far too much for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. The cartel should start subsidizing those fuel costs because of the stake the Mideast has in stabilizing Iraq and keeping Iran's brand of radical Islam from dominating the region.
In any event, until Congress fixes its own role in soaring fuel prices and does more to bring OPEC to heel, it should stop haranguing the nation's oil companies. It accomplishes nothing, except to make grandstanding members look like fools.
What this country needs from Washington, and so far hasn't gotten, is a visionary energy policy that curbs consumption, promotes domestic energy production and encourages research into viable renewables.
Ordinary Americanscan also help bring down oil prices by following the example of independent truckers: Just pull over for awhile.
Carpool. Buy fuel-efficient autos. Cut down on unnecessary driving. It's going to take work by all of us to curb spiraling oil prices. Scapegoating Big Oil won't get the job done.