Correction to This Article
The Washington Sketch column in the Nov. 10 Business section incorrectly identified Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) as the chairman of the energy committee. He is the chairman of the commerce committee, which was participating in a joint hearing with the energy panel.

Oil and Grilling Don't Mix

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, November 10, 2005

Senators struck a note of populist outrage when they ordered oil executives to appear before the Energy and Commerce committees to explain high fuel prices and record company profits. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), announcing the hearing, said it would expose "those who abuse the free-enterprise system to advantage themselves and their businesses at the expense of all Americans."

But instead of calling oil executives on the carpet yesterday, senators gave them the red-carpet treatment.

The companies summoned to testify have given about $400,000 in PAC money this year alone -- and much of that has found its way to those who served as the executives' interrogators. So while protesters came to the hearing wearing "Exxpose Exxon" T-shirts, most lawmakers opted to extol Exxon Mobil -- and Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and Shell.

"First, let me begin by thanking each of you and the companies for what you all did to save lives, to save property, to restore the communities along the Gulf Coast," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who has taken $249,155 in oil and gas money over five years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

"There's a great deal we know about your industry; there's a great deal the average citizen does not know," said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho, $96,950), explaining popular hostility to the industry. "I must tell you, it's not terribly fun defending you. But I do."

Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H., $64,480) praised the executives for being "very reasonable." He said industry's profits are big "because they are very big companies," and he argued against higher taxes on their profits.

From the start, the ferocity of the questioning seemed to come in inverse proportion to the amount of industry funds a questioner had received.

When Energy Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska, $102,190) announced that he would not require the executives to give their testimony under oath, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash., $9,400) asked for a vote on the issue. Stevens shot back: "There will be no vote . . . It's the decision of the chairman, and I have made that decision."

"I move that we swear in witnesses," Cantwell persisted.

"I second the motion," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif., $9,450).

"That's the last we're going to hear about that, because it's out of order," a piqued Stevens replied. When the two women continued their protest, the chairman informed them that "I intend to be respectful of the position that these gentlemen hold."

Stevens did not fail in this goal. When Boxer later displayed a large chart showing the executives' pay, Stevens cut her off.

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