Oil Slick Threatens Capitol Hill


In the face of outraged constituents stung deeply by the ever-rising cost of gassing up the family sedan, SUV or pickup truck, members of Congress are scrambling to look at rollbacks to recent tax breaks for the oil industry. The one-two punch of sky high gas prices and record-breaking oil industry profits looks to be one of this year’s biggest political hot potatoes in every congressional district in the land.

The job of trimming back the oil companies is likely to be a more painful one for Republicans, however, since the oil industry has historically given a lopsided majority of its campaign funds to GOP members.

It’s not quite the equivalent of Democrats having to vote against trial lawyers or unions – two of their most loyal constituent groups who give more than 90% of their campaign dollars to that party – but it’s about the closest the Republicans have to a one-party industry.

So far in the 2005-2006 election cycle, Republicans have collected 84% of the oil industry’s campaign cash, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the last two election cycles, the GOP got an even 80% of the money – a four-to-one edge over the industry’s dollars to Democrats.

CRP’s analysis of contributions shows that during the last full election cycle, Republican House members collected nearly $27,000 on average from the industry, versus just under $10,000 to Democrats. In the Senate, the GOP edge was narrower – $37,000 to $24,000. In all, nearly 90% of House members and 84% of the Senate got oil industry contributions during the 2003-2004 election cycle.

Sixteen of the 20 top recipients of oil money in that cycle were Republicans. In the current cycle, all 20 are Republicans.

Like virtually all interest groups, the oil industry upped its giving to Republicans after they took over control of Congress in the 1994 elections. But even prior to that time, they were giving two dollars out of every three to the GOP. The CRP numbers show that since 1990, Republicans have collected $140 million in contributions from the industry versus $46 million to the Democrats.

We haven’t yet gotten to the ultimate embarrassment-of-riches stage where the flow of contributions starts flowing backwards with a “no thank you” note from the recipients. The last big waves of outgoing checks from Capitol Hill came when members hustled to return money that had come from Enron, and most recently from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But the day could arrive, and if and when it does it’s going to be a lot easier to live with for the Democrats, who’ll have a lot fewer checks to return.

Of course, unlike Enron, there’s no impending end to the flow of dollars. The industry is unlikely to turn on its historical heels and start padding the reelection funds of Democrats just to even things out.

Likewise, sophisticated political donors understand well that campaign dollars don’t buy unquestioned loyalty on every issue, especially at a time when the industry’s on the defensive. And clearly, the industry recognizes it’s got a public relations problem on its hands.

Today’s New York Times article on moves by Congress to cut back tax breaks for the oil industry closes with the following lines:

Red Caveney, president of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the large oil companies, said his group would not fight to retain the newest tax breaks.


“We understand the frustration that consumers have expressed about energy prices,” Mr. Caveney told reporters on Wednesday.


So do members of Congress, whatever their political affiliation.