We citizens are lousy employers. We set minimum job requirements for the people we elect. We simply require that, once in office, they not disturb us in any way.

We don't want leaders. We prefer puppets. We don't want to be challenged. We'd rather be entertained.

Thus, what happened on Capitol Hill last week was our fault. On Wednesday, there was a joint hearing of the Senate Energy and Commerce committees on the oil industry's huge third-quarter 2005 profits.

I mean huge, gargantuan, megabucks -- combined profits of $32 billion in one three-month period, the same three months in which hundreds of Americans lost lives and hundreds of thousands more lost billions of dollars to hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The oil industry also suffered losses in those storms that ravaged drilling platforms and pipelines on the Gulf Coast. But, maybe, God plays favorites. The oil industry reaped record profits from the disaster that brought the rest of us unprecedented ruin.

Clearly, we don't care. We just want someone to put things back the way they were before. We want our world back -- the one in which the Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese and all of those people in Africa and South America did not want the cars and trucks and all the other things we have. We want them to stop using the oil that was once ours alone. We have an American way of life to maintain. Ours is the pursuit of happiness. It's written in the U.S. Constitution.

But we don't want to ask hard questions; and we certainly don't want tough answers, even if the answers say we are being ripped off and played for fools. That is why so few of us complained last week when the men of oil -- for they were all men -- were allowed to "testify" before Congress, before our sworn elected officials, without taking an oath!

What kind of "testimony" is that? What kind of "hearing" is that? How is that possibly, remotely in the public's best interest? That wasn't a hearing. It wasn't an investigation. It was a show; and rather than be outraged by the insult to our intelligence, we provided the moral equivalent of applause.

Did it not occur to anyone how bad, how hypocritical, how devastatingly worthless was that congressional performance? Need anyone be reminded that this was the same Congress that, several months before the hurricanes, approved $14.5 billion in federal tax credits for the oil industry and other energy businesses? Did anyone bother to ask why anyone in the oil industry should receive any of the $14.5 billion in President Bush's energy plan in the wake of literal windfall third-quarter profits of $32 billion? Did anyone dare suggest that those approved tax credits be rescinded -- that the money be put in a federal fund, perhaps allocated to universities and other independent research groups -- for the rapid development of alternative-fuel vehicles?


There were the usual cries against price gouging, all very theatrical and ultimately meaningless. There were proposals for price controls, which make little sense, considering that oil production is declining in a world where demand for oil is soaring. And, indeed, it boggles the mind how price controls at the pump would do anything to encourage consumers to conserve fuel. The only thing we would get from price controls is the continued illusion, the high-octane magic show, of cheap gasoline.

That's more entertainment, the kind that lulls us into a dangerously pleasant sleep. Hey, over the weekend, the average price for regular unleaded gasoline in the Mid-Atlantic region was $2.30 a gallon, according to the American Automobile Association. That's way down from $3.17 a gallon some of us were paying this past summer. Celebrate!


Here is what Congress should have done, and should still consider doing:

* Rescind the $14.5 billion in tax credits -- at least that portion of it that goes to the oil people -- in President Bush's energy plan. Any business that can't pull adequate research and development funds out of $32 billion in quarterly profit -- repeat, profit -- shouldn't be in business.

* Raise gasoline taxes to help curtail consumption. Use those taxes to accelerate the development of an alternative-fuel infrastructure in the United States.

* Reallocate current consumer tax credits for the purchase of hybrid, clean diesel and other alternatively fueled vehicles. It makes no sense to give a tax credit for a $45,000 luxury hybrid sport-utility vehicle that gets less overall mileage than a $12,000 economy car with a traditional gasoline engine.

* Force the White House to be as passionate in its pursuit of national energy conservation and efficiency as it is in fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It would be nice if we had all of those Americans back home working on developing new engines and fuels instead of having them over there getting killed, blowing up engines and burning up fuel.

* Start telling the American people the truth. To wit: We are facing a global energy crisis. It isn't pretty. It will require sacrifice from all of us. Overall gasoline prices will continue to go up. We are in for some traumatic, but survivable and necessary changes.

Not one of those proposals marks an easy way out. All are controversial, risky. But isn't that why we supposedly vote for leaders, instead of puppets and entertainers? Do we want government, or just another political show?

Oil company executives, from left, David J. O'Reilly of Chevron Corp., James J. Mulva of ConocoPhillips, Ross Pillari of BP America and John Hofmeister of Shell Oil testify before the Senate Energy and Commerce committees.