- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000

In the last 18 months, three separate pipeline tragedies have resulted in 16 deaths in New Mexico, Texas, and Washington. These unfortunate incidents naturally drew the attention of lawmakers and many argued that the time had come to revamp pipeline safety regulations.

And, indeed, that is exactly what has happened in the U.S. Senate. Led by John McCain, the Senate has approved legislation that would significantly increase reporting requirements for pipeline operators, substantially boost fines for safety violations, and implement new performance standards for the Office of Pipeline Safety.

The contents of the Senate bill, however, are the not the focus of this article. This author, for instance, exhausts his knowledge of natural gas issues when turning on the stove to make boxed macaroni and cheese. But there is a big story behind this legislation, a story of hypocrisy and political posturing that every American can understand. More specifically, the real story is how the pipeline safety bill was put together and how a handful of partisans in the House may sabotage the legislation in an election-year effort to score points and influence the outcome of a New Jersey Senate race.

But first, a little background on the Senate bill, particularly the surprising and laudable fact senators did not try to exploit the tragic deaths for political gain. No one in the Senate, Republican or Democrat, claimed it would somehow be possible to create a risk-free society by passing enough new regulations. They did not sensationalize the issue by creating a phony morality tale pitting "evil" corporations against public safety.

Instead, the Senate Commerce Committee got to work, rolled up their collective sleeves and crafted a bipartisan bill. To call the legislation bipartisan actually is an understatement. The bill was approved by unanimous voice vote, which means not a single senator objected. Not hard-core leftist Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrrat, and not rock-ribbed conservative Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican.

Even more surprising, the bill has the support of both the White House and the industry. Al Gore also hopped on the bandwagon, setting aside his campaign-trail, anti-corporate rhetoric to congratulate the Senate for its action. The vice president siding with "big oil." Talk about odd bedfellows.

Yet, to twist a phrase, it appears that this silver cloud of bipartisanship has a dark lining. A handful of liberal activists in the House, led by Democratic Reps. John Dingell of Michigan and James Oberstar of Minnesota, are trying to derail the pipeline safety bill. Their strategy is simple. They know only a handful of legislative days remain before Congress adjourns for the year. As such, they realize they can kill the bill by either blocking a vote or by insisting the House approve a different version, knowing full well it will be logistically impossible for a House-Senate conference committee to iron out the differences before adjournment.

More specifically, their strategy is to pressure the relevant subcommittee chairman, Rep. Bob Franks, New Jersey Republican. They know Mr. Franks is running for the Senate and that he has the daunting task of facing Wall Street fat-cat John Corzine, a stereotypical "limousine liberal" who may spend upward of $100 million out of his personal fortune on the race. Needless to say, Mr. Franks will not want to make his challenge even more difficult by allowing critics to brand him as "soft" on pipeline safety.

So what will happen? In an ideal world, Mr. Franks would stand tall, ignore the potential demagoguery, and move the Senate bill. But, in that ideal world, Mr. Dingell and Mr. Oberstar would not be putting short-term political considerations ahead of legislation that may reduce death and injury.

With any luck, there will be fewer tragedies regardless of whether the bill is approved. Pipeline companies, after all, have a financial interest in safe, well-operated transmission systems. Unfortunately, failure to move a bill will create uncertainty, and this could reduce incentives to modernize and improve the nationwide system of natural gas pipelines, nearly one-fourth of which are 50 years old.

The real lesson of this story is not whether this particular bill is perfect, or even very good. Instead, it is an illustration that class-warfare, anti-corporate demagogues care more about political power than about the issues they pretend to champion.

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