WASHINGTON — Republican Rep. Joe Barton, who drives a gas-guzzling Chevy Tahoe to get around his home state of Texas, says he's very happy with his large sport utility vehicle.
"It is a very good vehicle. ... But I don't believe it would be certified as a low greenhouse-gas emitting vehicle," said Barton, a 12-term veteran and the top-ranked Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
But Barton, who leases the Tahoe at taxpayers' expense, could be forced to downsize as part of Congress' effort to reduce global warming. Just before leaving town for its August recess, the House of Representatives approved a little-noticed amendment to its energy bill that would allow members of Congress to lease only environmentally friendly cars.
The vote was a victory for Missouri Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who authored the amendment. He estimates that it would affect about 100 members who spend more than $1 million a year to lease vehicles, including many large luxury cars.
Cleaver said gasoline prices "have skyrocketed past $3 in many parts of the country" and that members of Congress should begin shifting to cars powered by hydrogen, ethanol, electricity and biofuels.
"If we are going to declare that we are moving toward energy independence, then the members of Congress using taxpayer dollars ought to be willing to give up big Cadillacs in order to lease an energy-efficient car," said Cleaver, who leases a large van that's been retrofitted to run on used cooking oil.
Cleaver's amendment drew praise from Democratic leaders. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, called it "extraordinarily good legislation." Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said it would hold Congress to the same standard that the House wants to apply to the executive branch. The House energy bill would require all federal agencies to buy only low greenhouse-gas emitting vehicles for their fleets.
But critics say there's a big flaw in the Democratic legislation, which passed 218-196: It doesn't define which cars members could lease.
Under Cleaver's amendment, members could lease only "low greenhouse-gas emitting vehicles." It doesn't specify any gas-mileage standards that cars would have to achieve.
The battle will resume when Congress returns this week. While Cleaver's amendment passed the House, no similar language was in an energy bill that the Senate passed. That leaves the issue to be resolved by a House-Senate conference committee, which has yet to meet.
During a debate on the House floor, Barton noted that many cars that are used to provide security for congressional leaders wouldn't be allowed. He also said it would be a mistake to put leaders in low greenhouse-gas emitting cars because they wouldn't accelerate quickly enough in an emergency.
Cleaver countered by saying that his measure would apply only to rank-and-file members, not to the House speaker and others with special security needs. He noted that even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had requested an energy-efficient vehicle for her security detail. And he said that as Congress considered ways to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, it was important for members to lead by example.
"People around the country are constantly observing us and looking at us in ways that are negative because we want to pass laws to impose on everybody except us," Cleaver said.
The issue is prompting debate over whether it's proper for Congress to interfere with members' decisions on how to use their office budgets. Some opponents said the legislation was too vague, and they feared that Congress might be going too far.
Barton boasted about his Tahoe on the House floor, noting that he represents a GM assembly plant in Arlington, Texas, and his vehicle is "made with union labor, which would make all my friends on the Democratic side happy." Of its features, he said: "It has the engine in it that at a certain speed and under certain conditions, four of the eight cylinders stop working so you can get increased fuel efficiency."
Barton's office declined to answer questions about his Tahoe, but his spokeswoman, Karen Modlin, released a statement saying "the car fits the land and it fits the people, too." She said Barton represents "a Texas-sized district that covers eight counties and 6,000 square miles" and that Cleaver's amendment "seemed to overlook the fact that not every family, business or even congressional district is Prius-sized."
The House vote marked a turnaround for Cleaver, who'd withdrawn his plan in June, citing pressure from Democratic leaders. He's been working on the issue since last year, when The Kansas City Star reported that 136 of the 435 House members, from both parties, were leasing cars at taxpayers' expense. The lease prices of some of the cars topped $1,000 a month, and cost a total of at least $1.05 million.