On Tuesday night, the U.S. Senate came within a few votes of approving legislation to end taxpayer subsidies for the nation's five largest oil companies. A majority of senators voted in favor of the bill, but they failed to get the 60 votes needed for quick passage. While many will say the 52-48 split in the Senate fell along party lines, another divide clearly exists. This is the divide that separates lawmakers who receive campaign contributions and those who don’t.
One group calculates that the 48 senators who voted to keep the subsidies going have taken an average of $370,664 each in campaign contributions from employees and the political action committees of oil and gas companies. This calculation comes from data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, which also reveals that those voting to end the subsidies took an average of $72,145 each from so-called Big Oil. Essentially, this means that the senators opposing the end of oil subsidies have taken five times more than those who voted the opposite way. In all, those opposing the legislation took a total of $17,791,875 while in office compared to $3,751,551 from those who voted to end the subsidies.
After Tuesday’s vote, I spoke with Steve Kretzmann of Oil Change International. He said money is playing an increased role as a “difference-maker” when it comes to politics on the Capitol Hill.
“Its pretty amazing how much money is buying power with this Congress," he said. "Eliminating oil subsidies is not controversial at all. I’ve seen poll numbers that show up to 80 percent of the public wants to get rid of them. But that’s not how nearly half of the senators feel about it.”
Kretzmann used the Democrats who broke party lines in favor of the oil companies as examples of the money divide. “These Democrats decided not to listen to what the vast majority of the public wants in favor of what a few oil companies pay them to do,” he said.
The Democrats who voted to keep the subsidies in place are Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska). Begich is reported to have received $153,0555 from mostly oil interests, while Landrieu is the Democrats' leading recipient of industry contributions. She has received more than $1 million from oil interests since 1999. To see a complete list of oil and gas industry donations to politicians, click here.
The funding divide in Washington is likely to become more obvious in the coming days and months. The Senate is gearing up to vote on a Mitch McConnell-sponsored bill to drastically speed up the oil-permitting process in the United States. Before the end of the month, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico is expected to attempt to pass a “spill bill” that deals with oil company liability limits after spills. As summer ends, expect to see another vote on the oil subsidy question when the debt ceiling debate hits Capitol Hill. On each one of these contentious votes, you can expect a lot of back and forth between Republicans and Democrats, but it’s really likely to come down to dollars and cents.