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. (Published 11/11/2005)

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.

"We'll stop the clock right here for you, Senator," Stevens said, ordering the chart taken down because it was not "information that pertains to our issue."

From the audience, a woman called out: "How about the consumers?" When the same woman later let out a cheer, Stevens threatened to "clear the room."

At times, the senators seemed to be bigger boosters of the industry than the executives themselves. Under questioning from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore., $12,500), all five executives testified that they did not need the tax breaks in the recent energy bill.

"That energy legislation is zero in terms of how it affects Exxon Mobil," said the company's chairman, Lee Raymond.

This did not sit well with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex., $306,820). "But," she asked, don't the tax breaks "make a difference" in investment decisions?

Raymond would not play along. "They will not significantly alter the programs that we have," he said. Stevens scratched his head.

More than one senator begged the executives to help them explain high energy prices to consumers. "Please," said Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M., $164,158), "describe in detail how the price of oil is set." Nobody volunteered. So Domenici called on Raymond to "put yourself in my shoes."

The executives rebuffed requests from other friends. They wouldn't comment on a request by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M., $43,864) for their thoughts on fuel economy standards. When Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn., $117,450) asked whether they favor more efficient natural gas plants, Shell's John Hofmeister advised him: "That's a question for the utilities."

The executives were even less forthcoming when questions turned hostile. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J., $10,000) asked whether any of the companies had participated in Vice President Cheney's energy task force, and all five answered in the negative. Fortunately, they were not under oath: A report by the Government Accountability Office found that Chevron was one of several companies that "gave detailed energy policy recommendations" to the task force.

Lautenberg did not press the issue. Those wearing the "Exxpose Exxon" T-shirts put on their jackets. The unscathed executives walked briskly with their security guards from the building, past a pair of demonstrators with "Return the Gas and Oil Money" signs, and into their waiting Cadillacs.

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.