- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2001

Big government has a funny way of putting money in your pocket with one hand while it empties out your wallet with the other.
We just might see a demonstration of that sleight-of-hand trick this summer. Many of us will be getting income tax rebate checks for a few hundred dollars. But at the same time, Washington is gearing up for new auto fuel efficiency standards that will pick the pocket of anyone who wants to buy a pick-up truck or a jeep excuse me, "SUV" and give the national economy an extra burden it certainly doesn't need.
Those of us in the Mountain West who were depending on four-wheel-drive vehicles long before they became suburbanites' preferred vehicle might very well ask why Washington wants to launch more regulations that interfere with our personal choices. As usual, the answer lies in politics. The environment has always been an issue ripe for demagogy. It's more so now than ever with fuel prices high, the energy crisis in California threatening to spill over into neighboring states and President Bush still taking heat for his wise decision to scrap the Kyoto treaty. So legislators and regulators alike are scurrying to do the environmental lobbyists' bidding and pass even more stringent fuel efficiency standards.
People like fuel efficiency. It's part of what sells cars. So the American auto industry has been putting its technical prowess into giving customers better mileage for the last 20 years. Some customers obviously prefer to swap a little gas mileage for the comfort, safety and utility of an SUV or pickup truck. And the industry obliges them as well. That's the way free markets work.
But free market economics don't sit well with hair-trigger regulators inside the Beltway. They've decided this is their moment to impose arbitrary fuel efficiency standards that will jack up the prices of SUVs and light trucks and put the brakes on the U.S. auto industry, which is a bedrock of our national economy. This is one more example of how the insidious hand of regulation adds enormous cost to the economy.
Their weapon of choice is the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards. CAFE standards mandate the average gas mileage automakers must achieve for all models in a specific class of vehicles.
The CAFE standard for regular passenger cars is 27.5 miles per gallon. In the light truck category, which includes SUVs and small pickup trucks, the standard is 20.7. In their rush to get into the environmental limelight, regulators and some members of Congress are tripping over each other to propose impossible new CAFE standards for SUVs and pickups.
One proposed new standard includes a three gallon increase to 23.7, and another proposal would make all vehicles adhere to the passenger car standard of 27.5 miles-per-gallon. If Detroit continues its progress in extending mileage efficiency, 27.5 mpgs for an SUV might be possible someday. But it can't happen overnight by regulatory fiat, not without huge price increases that would drive SUVs and light pickups out of the market. Since these are the best selling models in the auto industry, I don't know where the revenues would come from to finance further fuel efficiency research.
Using regulatory policy to make American-made SUVs more expensive would open a golden door for Japanese competitors whose vehicles are lighter and could more easily conform to the new mileage requirements. For the time being at least, a Ford Explorer needs a bit more gas than a Honda Civic.
The environmental lobby would probably like to regulate everyone into a Honda Civic. But having represented Wyoming in the U.S. Senate for 18 years, I'm confident that Westerners want less regulatory interference in their lives not more. That's what the "Sagebrush Rebellion" in the 1970s was all about, and the ingredients are there for a similar outburst if Washington takes the dramatic step of making SUVs and pickup trucks significantly more expensive than they already are.
We don't want regulators telling us what we can drive, nor do we want them driving the economy off the road. So let's leave the CAFE standards alone. Let the free market do its job.

Malcolm Wallop is a former U.S. senator from Wyoming and chairman of Frontiers of Freedom, an advocacy group opposed to unnecessary government regulation.

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