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The Planet
From the Editor: One Stinging Loss, One Promising Win

By John Byrne Barry

Just a few days after a bitterly disappointing Senate vote rejecting a boost in fuel economy standards, the Senate passed the campaign finance reform bill.

The juxtaposition could not have been timed better to illustrate the need for reform.

The Senate had a chance to vote for a forward-looking measure, sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), that would have boosted fuel economy standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2013, saving one million gallons of oil per day. Instead, they passed a substitute amendment by Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that did nothing. Bond claimed the only way to meet the higher standards would be "to put everybody into glorified golf carts."

Despite such scare tactics, the case for fuel efficiency could hardly have been stronger. A recent National Academy of Sciences report concluded that major improvements in fuel efficiency are possible without reductions in car size, weight or safety. Energy security concerns have never been higher, and increasing the fuel economy standards to 35 mpg could save more oil than we import from the Persian Gulf every year.

The Senate vote almost defied logic. Until you followed the dollars.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the senators who voted against raise fuel economy standards received an average of $18,000 from the auto industry, more than three times the average amount received by senators who supported it.

Sens. Levin and Bond are, respectively, the 4th highest and 18th highest lifetime recipients of campaign contributions from the auto industry, at $133,250 and $48,939. In contrast, Kerry is 805th on the auto industry's list, with just $750, and Senator McCain is 41st, with $29,350.

Levin's take pales, however, when compared to President Bush's receipts from the auto industry. The CRP reported that the president received $1,289,747 from the car lobby in his bid for the White House, making him the single largest recipient of auto industry dollars in 2000.

The Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which bans soft money, will not solve all these problems. It's only a first step. But it's a victory for democracy and holds out the promise that the next time a bid to raise fuel efficiency comes around, the auto lobby will have less clout.

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