Gunning for Gas Guzzlers

Ironically, sometimes lawmakers get most done when Congress is closed for business. During the Thanksgiving recess, negotiators took time out from their leftover turkey to thrash out a deal on crucial energy legislation that will increase the efficiency of America’s cars by 40 percent, to 35 miles per gallon by 2020: The measures will likely be brought to a vote this week.

That’s no small achievement: Energy legislation is notoriously hard to get right, and it’s been 32 years since lawmakers last managed to push through an increase in auto-efficiency ratings. The new regulations may not be much by global standards - they’ll merely put American auto efficiency on a par with China’s - but they’ll reduce the country’s thirst for oil by 1.2 million barrels a day, while saving drivers an estimated $22 billion a year in payments at the pump.

Much of the credit for the deal goes to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who overcame strong opposition from Michigan Democrat John Dingell - a longtime friend of the auto industry - to cement a workable compromise. She had to throw Detroit a bone or two along the way, of course: Automakers will be allowed to claim credits for producing flex-fuel cars that can run on a gasoline-ethanol mix, considered a loophole by many greens since there’s no guarantee that consumers won’t simply keep topping up with regular gas.

There’s concern, too, that the legislation could help automakers persuade the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to block states’ efforts to regulate tailpipe emissions within their borders: Detroit says a single national standard ought to be sufficient. Given the key role governors and state legislatures have played in pushing forward the green agenda in recent months, ceding responsibility for tailpipe regulations to the federal government would set a troubling precedent.

Still, for now the bottom line is that the new rules are a big step forward, and a sign of how much progress the Democratic Congress has made. Just two years ago, barely a quarter of the Senate backed plans for an overhaul of fuel-efficiency standards; now, thanks to some tough leadership and spiraling oil prices, almost everyone acknowledges the need for reform. All Democratic leaders need to do now is demonstrate that having bashed together a back-room compromise, they can maintain their momentum as they bring the legislation to a vote.