Wishy-washy liberalism, a style of anemic politics increasing of late, had its ranks further swollen last week. When the House approved (230-188) an Alaska natural gas pipeline bill, three of Congress' star liberals -- Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill (D-Mass.), Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) -- pliantly sided with a powerful and lavishly financed consortium of oil companies, banks and energy industry lobbyists.
In essence, the three supported a corporate welfare bill. The vote was on whether the costs of the $40 billion-plus pipeline should be privately financed -- which is basic free enterprise and was the agreement between industry and Congress four years ago -- or publicly financed by consumers.
Legislatively, the issue involved waivers to 1977 laws. As approved, in the House vote, these waivers meant that consumers, through their monthly gas bills, could be pre-charged for the pipeline beginning in 1987. The consumers' prepayments could be demanded even if the project is never finished and no gas ever delivered.
The vote on the waiver is traceable to the skittishness of bankers. They worried about their loans: What if Alaskan gas is priced so high in six years that it is noncompetitive? What if the system -- it would be history's largest construction project -- is not finished? With the banks saying no and the energy companies unwilling to risk their capital, the fall guy was the unconsulted consumer. Let him pay, even if it's for nothing.
The disappointing performance from liberals like O'Neill, Udall and Mikulski came from their blithe acceptance of the weak arguments put out by the energy consortium, arguments which earlier had been accepted by President Reagan.
O'Neill said that the consumers needed the gas, as though this were a referendum on energy security. It wasn't.
Mikulski, who prides herself on knowing the problems of Average Joe in the Baltimore neighborhoods, argued that the pre-billing issue was a minor worry: The monthly costs would be the equivalent of less than a beer a day or one night of playing bingo. The little people of Baltimore wouldn't find that too great a sacrifice.
Udall became an internationalist, saying that since Canada was in on the project we shouldn't have second thoughts now.
Unlike O'Neill and Mikulski, Udall at least alluded to his defection: "I'm a little ill at ease here today arguing to my colleagues to approve this package of waivers. I am generally found with the Consumer Federation and some of the consumer groups on issues of this kind, and I have not yet been selected as Exxon's man of the year . . ."
With these three liberal Democrats supporting the wishes of the oil companies and banks, the defense of consumers was left to a group of House Republican conservatives.
One of them, Rep. Lynn Martin, an Illinois freshman and a supporter of the Reagan economic policies, spoke with bluntness: The pre-billing requirement "is nothing more than a tax on gas consumers to subsidize the energy companies. As we all know, the energy companies have not been standing in line in bankruptcy court lately. Asking gas consumers to finance their undertakings can only be termed a rip-off."
Rep. Tom Corcoran (R-Ill.), whose rating with the American Conservative Union is close to 90 percent, deftly turned aside Udall's Canadian pitch: "Our job is to represent the people here, from the United States, not Canada."
The arguments of conservatives like Martin and Corcoran were politically reasonable and economically sound. They might have prevailed had the media fully reported to consumers that it was their money being played with, by both the energy lobby and liberals like O'Neill, Udall and Mikulski.
But instead of reporting in-depth a $40-billion story, most of the media were in a pack hunt chasing the Richard Allen $1,000 nonstory. On television, CBS didn't offer an analysis until the night before the House vote, which was a much too late moment.
With the public largely uninformed, citizen protest never had time to rise and reach Congress. It might well have. On Nov. 19, the Senate voted 75-19 for the waivers. In comparison, the House vote was exceptionally tight.
With another week, with more consumers alerted and fewer liberals daring to abandon them, this might have been a public rather than a private victory. 1981, The Washington Post Company