Boswell joins House Republicans to approve oil drilling bill

The U.S. House approved a bill last night that would encourage more offshore oil drilling and force the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Although Leonard Boswell (IA-03) has talked about getting tough on oil companies for the past year, he was one of 21 House Democrats who joined most Republicans in supporting the “drill here, drill now” crowd’s wish list.  

H.R. 3408, the Protecting Investment in Oil Shale, the Next Generation of Environmental, Energy and Resource Security (PIONEERS) Act, started out as part of the massive House transportation bill. Republicans and Democrats disagree on many aspects of what U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has called the worst transportation bill he’s seen in 35 years of public service. House leaders admitted this week that they weren’t confident they had the votes to pass it.

House Republicans are divided on the measure, with some conservatives thinking the level of spending is too high while several moderate Republicans object to drilling in ANWR.

[House Speaker John] Boehner told rank-and-file Republicans at a meeting Wednesday morning that “it’s more important that we do it right than that we do it fast,” according to one aide who attended the meeting.

The aide maintained that the reason for the delay was GOP leaders must find new ways to offset some of the costs. One proposal — a cut to federal employees pension plans — is no longer available because it’s being used to help pay for the payroll tax cut extension. […]

Traditionally, major highway bills are stuffed with money set aside for members’ pet projects in their districts — bridges or highway expansions that they go home and claim credit for getting funded.

After House Republicans took control in 2010, they banned earmarks, making it tougher to build support for the transportation bill. Several GOP aides pointed out that the last major transportation legislation passed by Congress contained more than 6,000 earmarks, while this House GOP bill has none.

Provisions on oil drilling became a major part of the transportation bill because in theory, increased oil revenues could help fund highways. Democrats reject that claim.

“What they do is, they bring out proposals here that try to build real highways with fake oil revenues that are never going to materialize,” Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said in Wednesday’s debate. “So rather than working here in the real world, where the real transportation needs of our country are dealt with real revenues that are coming in, they talk about oil shale, which Shell [Oil Co.] says is at least another 10 years away.”

House leaders brought the PIONEERS Act to the floor yesterday as part of an unusual strategy:

Republican leadership is considering splitting the bill into three bills for separate votes: transportation, the energy (oil/gas expanded drilling) section, and the section dealing with federal pension reform. (The latter would require an increased employee contribution, with the savings counting towards the funding of the transportation bill.)  The bills that pass would be reassembled into one bill for a vote.

This strategy enables Members to go on record voting “yes” on sections they strongly support, and “no” on sections they strongly oppose.

Deron Lovaas wrote at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s blog,

Then there what’s called a “self-executing” component to the rule, a procedural trick that staples the bills together after separate votes. A colleague tells me this has only been done three times, ever, by the House.

I assume the oil drilling piece went first because public anxiety about gasoline prices makes it an easier sell. The 237 to 187 roll call shows that even though 21 Republicans voted against this bill (which should have been enough to tank it), 21 Democrats helped save the day for House leaders by voting yes. As I mentioned at the top of this post, Boswell was one of the yes votes. Republicans Tom Latham (IA-04) and Steve King (IA-05) also stood with the majority; they are longtime proponents of increased oil drilling. Iowa Democrats Bruce Braley (IA-01) and Dave Loebsack (IA-02) voted no.

In fairness to Boswell, he did support many of the amendments Democrats proposed to the PIONEERS Act. The House rejected most of those amendments. Of the amendments Pete Kasperowicz summarized here, Boswell supported all except the ones offered by Representatives Jared Polis, Lois Capps and Tim Bishop. He also voted against an amendment offered by Mike Thompson, which would have specifically banned oil drilling off the coast of northern California. Just before the final vote on passage, Boswell was one of only nine Democrats to vote against the motion to recommit (usually the last-ditch effort to kill legislation in the House).

In a sense, Boswell’s votes yesterday were not surprising. In May 2011 he co-sponsored the Infrastructure Jobs and Energy Independence Act, which he touted as a way to harness “America’s vast natural resources by allowing the safe, responsible expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration.” Boswell’s overall record on supporting the oil and gas industry is mixed; click here for details on specific votes related to oil and gas subsidies.

Nevertheless, Boswell has repeatedly signaled that standing up to oil companies will be an important theme of his re-election campaign against Latham in IA-03. The Democrat has been hammering on the need to end tax subsidies for oil and gas companies since last April. During the past year, Boswell has used that talking point in more than a half-dozen press releases or e-mail blasts. He’s also requested a “full House Agriculture Committee hearing and investigation into the relationship between rising oil prices and Wall Street speculators.”

Technically, supporting offshore drilling and KeystoneXL differs from backing tax breaks for oil companies, but yesterday’s votes still undercut any attempt to depict Boswell as someone who stands up to Big Oil. The PIONEERS Act uses transportation funding as a flimsy excuse to give oil companies everything they want on drilling regulations.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

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