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Lawmakers don't warm to green cars

May 01, 2008|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley likes his taxpayer-funded Ford Expedition. He isn't worried that it's not the most fuel-efficient car. It's reliable, suits his mountainous district and is cheaper to lease than many other vehicles.

"It's not a Cadillac. It's not a Lincoln. It's a Ford," the Republican congressman said with exasperation.

But like it or not, Gallegly and other lawmakers will have to give up gas-hungry SUVs and luxury sedans for leased vehicles that are more eco-correct, such as Toyota's Prius.

And some are in a high-octane fit about it.

"A Prius isn't made in the United States," Gallegly complained.

Congress has been bearing down to do more about global warming. But a little-noticed amendment to last year's energy bill has hit especially close to home. It requires House members who lease vehicles through their office budgets to drive cars that emit low levels of greenhouse gases.

Among the victims: Texas Republican Joe L. Barton, who will probably have to give up his Chevy Tahoe, despite his protests that it is made in his district. "I guarantee you my district is not upset that I'm driving a Chevy Tahoe," he said.

The effort to steer lawmakers into vehicles that get better mileage comes as Congress has mandated more fuel-efficient vehicles for the public and pump prices have surged.

A good example

The requirement was sought by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), who figured that if his colleagues were serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and U.S. dependence on foreign oil, they ought to put their foot where their mouth is.

Cleaver does. His taxpayer-funded Ford Econoline, a recycled airport shuttle he uses as a mobile office, runs on cooking grease. But he's heard grumbling from colleagues.

"They want their Lexuses and their Cadillacs," he said. "I just think it's a poor example for us to spend so much time talking about energy independence and global warming and presenting to the people an image of fat cats living the fat life."

Twenty-one of California's 53 House members lease vehicles, among them Reps. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) and Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach ), who get around in Lincoln Town Cars, and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), who uses a Prius.

Overall, about 130 of the 435 House members lease vehicles, according to an analysis by The Times and the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Under the legislation, the Environmental Protection Agency will determine which vehicles lawmakers will be allowed to lease, a list that's expected before the end of the year. Senators are not allowed to use their office budgets for long-term vehicle leases. Lawmakers can seek mileage reimbursement when they use their own vehicles for congressional business.

The EPA's list could include vehicles such as the Ford Escape Hybrid, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid and the Prius, which received high scores on the EPA's Green Vehicle Guide. The guide rates vehicles on their greenhouse gas emissions on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being best.

The 2003 Ford Expedition that Rep. Wally Herger (R-Chico) drives gets a combined city-highway average of 14 miles per gallon and emits about 13 tons of greenhouse gases a year. It scored a 2, the worst among California lawmakers who have taxpayer-funded vehicles.

Becerra's 2006 Prius, which gets about 46 mpg and emits about 4 tons of greenhouse gases annually, scored a 10.

The lease requirement passed narrowly last August after a brief debate, with most Democrats -- including Becerra and Watson -- supporting it and most Republicans -- including Barton, Gallegly and Herger -- opposing it. (Richardson was not in Congress for the vote on the amendment but supported the energy bill in December.)

Watson grew testy when asked recently about her taxpayer-funded vehicle.

"You guys ask me such idiotic questions," Watson snapped. Her spokeswoman, Dorinda White, explained that Watson chose the Lincoln because she is "over 6 feet tall in shoes" and spends a lot of time driving around her district.

Reaction to the requirement has varied.

Some Republicans lashed out at Democrats, accusing the House leadership of hypocrisy.

"I will start driving a green car once Pelosi starts ballooning back and forth from coast to coast to save jet fuel," said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who has made climate change a top priority.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said the Chevy Suburban the speaker uses was selected by the sergeant-at-arms, who oversees her security. But Hammill noted that Pelosi has asked that her next vehicle be a hybrid.

The requirement has drawn criticism from Democrats as well.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest-serving House member, drives a Ford Escape Hybrid leased by his campaign but voted against the requirement because "historically, members have been held accountable by their constituents for these types of actions," said his spokeswoman.

More grumbling

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