When it comes to the current crisis in the Middle East, President Bush deserves the support of all Americans; not just because we only get our presidents one at a time but also because he's done a good job so far.
It remains to be seen, though, whether he has the will to establish the kind of effective energy policy needed to enhance our security over the long term.
His predecessor certainly didn't get that job done.
For America, the 1980s under president Ronald Reagan were a decade of indulgence. After all, from the end of the 1982 recession until today we have enjoyed a period of uninterrupted growth. But that growth, fueled by $200 billion-a-year federal deficits, masked a host of problems.
The Reagan doctrine that no policy is the best policy held sway on such matters as the S&L calamity. There were cutbacks, year after year, in government oversight. There were too few inspectors, too few examiners and too many pressures.
Because of an ideological aversion, the Reagan administration never established a trade policy, being content to look on as we went from the world's largest creditor nation to its biggest debtor in a short, three-year period.
When it came to energy, low prices were policy enough, and never mind that those prices were the result of an OPEC decision in late 1985 to boost production. Never mind that those prices could be forced up by the twist of a valve or the ambitions of an Iraqi dictator.
The administration said the U.S. government should not "interfere" in the market by setting policies to boost conservation and production, not even at the margins.
The result? The United States today produces 1.6 million fewer barrels a day of oil than in 1985 and consumes 1.2 million barrels more. You don't have to be a mathematician to figure it out. A hands-off approach to energy policy plus continued Persian Gulf instability equals an increased risk of rationing or other draconian policy steps.
Three years ago, when I proposed "peril point" legislation that said the president must take action when oil imports are projected to exceed 50 percent of the oil we consume, the administration fought me tooth and nail.
I said 50 percent dependency was a peril point beyond which our national security and economic well-being are threatened, and when our dependence approaches that point the president must develop a program to encourage domestic production and conservation.
My legislation left it up to the president to decide the specifics of this energy policy, but the Reagan administration twisted arms, changed votes at the last minute and managed to defeat us in the Senate, 55-41.
They never offered an alternative. In actuality, we shouldn't wait for 50 percent dependency to establish an effective U.S. energy policy, but they weren't interested in establishing a policy that would take effect either above or below that arbitrary point of peril.
(Ironically, a proposal virtually identical to my 1987 Peril Point bill passed the Senate earlier this month without opposition.)
The one notable element of an energy policy that lasted through the Reagan years is the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. It holds 600 million barrels of oil, enough to smooth out the rough spots from all but the most severe oil import cutoffs. But the SPR would hold much less oil today had it been left up to the administration. Congress was repeatedly called on to fight off their efforts to substantially reduce the fill rate.
During the decade of indulgence, the administration also led the retreat from tough automobile fuel efficiency standards -- the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements. Thermostats were turned up in winter and down in summer all over Washington and all over America.
They didn't worry that the United States accounted for more than a fourth of world oil consumption. To them, energy conservation was a memory, not an objective.
That must change. We have demonstrated conclusively that America can make substantial reductions in energy consumption, and a return to the ethic of conservation must be a major component of an energy policy for the '90s. We should set realistic goals for decreased energy consumption and achieve them.
We must also identify effective and appropriate incentives for production of America's own substantial energy assets.
Prices at or above $25 a barrel provide a powerful spur for renewed domestic exploration and production activities. Texans are well aware that if prices stay there for two years, we'll see 120,000 jobs created in our state.
But Texans these days are more interested in stability than the kinds of price spikes we saw in the '70s, stability that can be provided by an energy policy that discourages consumption and encourages production. The people of Texas suffered a major recession in the mid-'80s, and we know those spikes can point down as well as up. Before that recession, energy accounted for 25 percent of our state's economy, today it's down to 9 percent. A wild jump in oil prices today will send our state into recession along with the rest of America.
We Texans have learned that the kinds of wild gyrations that sent oil prices plummeting from more than $35 a barrel in 1985 to less than $10 in 1986 don't do any of us, producers or consumers, any good over the long haul.
Too bad the major oil companies haven't learned this lesson. They were too quick to pounce on the current crisis in the Gulf to extract some quick, short-term profits from a situation fraught with danger for America. It's called price gouging, and it's unconscionable as well as unacceptable. Sound energy policy and greater energy security will require a measure of sacrifice and cooperation from all Americans, and the oil companies will be called upon to do their part.
For most of this century, people with credentials have been predicting the demise of America's energy reserves. And time after time, they have been proven wrong. It would be naive to think America can ever become self-sufficient in energy, but it is equally important to understand that we have major untapped energy resources that can cushion our dangerous reliance on oil from the Persian Gulf.
The United States has substantial natural gas reserves, but that gas is deep in the ground and will be expensive to recover. Current prices would bring that production on stream, but you need stability or you're not going to get those projects done.
We should not establish an energy policy that relies solely on conservation. Though that aspect is vitally important, we also need incentives to produce. The economic and national security advantages could not be more obvious or more important.
For example, we won't eliminate this country's trade deficit until we develop an energy policy that encourages us to both produce more and use less. Our total bill for imported energy last year was $49 billion, accounting for 45 percent of our trade deficit.
President Reagan enjoyed enormous political success during his two terms in office, confounding and frustrating those of us in the loyal opposition on more than one occasion.
His legacy, though, is something else. He left us with massive budget deficits, a pervasive S&L scandal and a dangerous dependency on oil imports that adds to the crisis atmosphere surrounding the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
When it comes to energy policy, President Bush today has an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the man who preceded him in office.
The writer, a Democratic senator from Texas, is chairman of the Finance Committee.