Right now, chatter around the energy bill revolves around the idea that the Senate, having failed to move forward House legislation, should pass a bill focused only on raising CAFE standards and hope that the White House caves on its veto threat. This is what the Washington Post' advocated in its Sunday lecture to congressional leaders-- in the process ignoring that the administration and others continue insist on limiting (or removing) the EPA's authority over auto emissions, and thus also threatening state efforts to limit global warming pollution.
The media also continues to ignore the prospect that this all might be one elaborate greenwash by the auto industry, caving to a bold CAFE increase sans preemption with the foreknowledge that it stands no chance of becoming law, and all the while working through allies and the White House to make sure that's the case. Some damning evidence comes, quite indirectly, via the Detroit Free Press and the AP wires, which report that two former Secretaries of Transportation-- at least one of whom is definitely on the industry's payroll, although he doesn't bother to mention it-- have written Congress in the industry's defense while essentially backing up the White House's veto threat:
In a joint letter Monday, former transportation secretaries Rodney Slater and Norman Mineta told Congress that letting EPA "pursue its own separate, unharmonized rulemaking track could negate Congress' finely balanced legislation -- not to mention jeopardize the auto industry."
Slater's role in particular gives us insight into what the auto industry is really aiming for. Presently an attorney/lobbyist for power law firm Patton Boggs, Slater is the chairman of Driving America's Future, an astroturf campaign created by the auto industry to support weaker CAFE legislation such as the Hill-Terry bill that would have preempted state emissions standards. Indeed, after the House's deal on a CAFE standard of 35 MPG was reached, Slater, speaking in his capacity with Driving America's Future, told sympathetic columnist David Nicklaus that he supported the compromise becoming law.
Unfortunately, media reports have failed to note his obvious conflict of interest-- literally, it took two minutes to uncover on Google!-- thus letting Slater cast himself as a sagacious former Transportation Secretary urging his fellow Democrats to proceed with caution, rather than in his role as an active auto industry mouthpiece. We don't think its asking too much for reporters to note that fact, and to recognize that his avowed support for the energy bill is thrown into question by advocating for a change that is at the heart of the White House's veto threat, and which would rightly be considered a poison pill by numerous key members of Congress.
(Mineta's role here is a bit more ambiguous, as Clean Air Watch's Frank O'Donell, who figured out Slater's role around the same time as we did, notes. As the most recent Secretary of Transportation, it's not shocking that he'd advocate for a position in line with the White House, though it is worth noting that he is currently Vice-Chairman of international corporate PR firm Hill and Knowlton. Still, seeing as Mineta crafted the 2006 CAFE rules for light trucks that were recently invalidated by the 9th Circuit for being arbitrarily biased toward the industry-- he announced their "landmark" issuance to great fanfare in Baltimore's football stadium-- it's important to recognize that he's also not the most credible and unbiased messenger on these issues.)
These days the auto industry is professing a lot of public enthusiasm for moving forward with the compromise bill passed by the House. The most extravagant example comes from Toyota's official corporate blog, which quickly embraced the deal with so much gusto that one might think that the company hadn't conceded anything in the process (and hadn't been pressured by a brilliant grassroots/PR campaign organized by Prius owners and the Natural Resources Defense Council).
But adding up the evidence amassing daily, it becomes clear that this is not much more than a public relations facade. The industry might have caved to the political reality that it can't be on the wrong side of progress, and changed its position accordingly, but it's still playing both sides. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for its congressional allies.
Don't believe the hype-- there's been no epiphany here to get with the program, only a shift in stalling tactics that, thus far, has slipped largely under the radar.