Thursday morning in Washington began with what has become a yearly ritual. The executives from the big five oil companies got to answer questions about their government subsidies in the wake of huge quarterly profits.
Senate Finance Committee Chariman Max Baucus wanted to know exactly why the "Big Five" felt they should continue to get $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies while enjoying profits of $31 billion during the first quarter of 2011 alone. The executives tried their best to explain it; something that is increasingly harder to do with a Congress that wants to make large reductions to the federal deficit.
While many reports will make note of the hearing’s circus atmosphere that included Sen. Orin Hatch’s unveiling of a picture of a dog sitting on a pony after saying he didn’t want the hearing to be about cheap political stunts, there was some actual tension in the room that didn’t require any stunts to feel.
Schumer demands to know if education is more important than oil subsidies
Menendez angry after being called ‘un-American'
While Chuck Schmuer certainly fired the first shots of the hearing, it was Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) who hit hardest. Menendez, like Schumer, directed his questioning to Mulva. Picking right up where Schumer left off, Menendez first demanded that Mulva apologize. When he didn’t get an apology Menendez said, “The bottom line is you're unwilling to apologize for your company's statement so I will continue to take offense to it." Menendez also was quick to point out that Republicans like former President George W. Bush and current Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) had said that they would support rolling back the government subsidies of oil companies as well.
Jay Rockefeller says the executives are out of touch
The normally mild-mannered West Virginian seemed to have a particular chip on his shoulder when he got the microphone. He continuously told the executives that he thought they were “out of touch with everyday Americans.” Rockefeller (D-W.V.) didn’t stop there. “The whole concept of sharing makes you guys threaten to move to another country," he said. "I don’t buy it. You are all out of touch with the American people.” Rockefeller then took another jab at the executives saying, “You have no idea what your profits really are.” ExxonMobile’s Rex Tillerson struck back saying, “I am not out of touch.” He then said that ExxonMobile didn’t get subsidies, but instead got “legitimate tax incentives.” Late in the hearing, for good measure I suppose, Rockefeller got the microphone and called Tillerman “out of touch” one last time.
Senator Wyden’s incriminating video
Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) should get some credit for bringing in some digital video production to the hearing, though I suppose the oil executives aren’t as keen on the idea. Wyden played a video of the 2005 version of the Big Five who all answered “yes” when asked if they agreed with then-President George W. Bush’s comments that “with oil prices at $55 a barrel oil companies don’t need ‘incentives’ to drill.” After playing the video Wyden said, "You all said you didn't need them in 2005. You seem to be telling a different story today.” Since the Big Five executives appearance in 2005, the price of oil has essentially doubled. Here’s the Wyden video:
Crapo shows up late, after meeting with BP lobbyist
On a regular day on Capitol Hill any of these events would have been headline worthy. Instead we got all of them in one place at one time. Sen. Robert Menendez is expected to introduce a bill in the coming weeks that calls for repealing the oil subsidies, once and for all. Menendez’s bill is not expected to get the necessary 60 votes to make it out of the Senate. But, for the first time in decades, the oil subsidies appear to be very vulnerable to getting rolled back.
Not only did senators vow to bring back Menendez’s bill if it fails to pass, but a recent poll shows that 74 percent of Americans favor eliminating the subsidies. That’s a big number. When do you remember the last time 74 percent of Americans felt the same way about anything?