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Jewish World Review May 15, 2001 / 22 Iyar, 5761

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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Consumer Reports

Close SUV loophole -- THE "SUV loophole" is so big that you can drive a truck through it. In fact the loophole is a light truck.

Back in 1975, when Washington passed CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards designed to improve gas mileage in automobiles, lawmakers set a lower standard for light trucks. Automakers later used the loophole to market bigger cars, such as minivans and sport utility vehicles, which fall under the same category. The CAFE standard is 27.5 miles per gallon for cars, but 20.7 mpg for light trucks. Thus, what was supposed to be a break for hard-working farmers and industries became a Yuppie Exemption.

Not to her great credit, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein owns a gas-guzzling SUV, even though she believes in global warming and doesn't want to drill in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In fact, last year the Los Angeles Times reported that she owned three SUVs. Which makes her your perfect "SUV Democrat."

To her credit, Feinstein has been pushing to close the SUV loophole. "We're energy gluttons," said Feinstein. (With her three SUVs, she should know.) Her legislation would require that the 27.5 mpg standard for cars apply to SUVs and light trucks by 2007.

Feinstein's bill is on the money. It makes no sense for Washington to determine that there is a national interest in limiting gas mileage, but only for small, less expensive cars.

Especially when light trucks and SUVs account for some 40 percent of new car sales. As Feinstein explained this week, it is a "no-brainer . . . that SUVs and light trucks are passenger vehicles" and should operate under the same rules.

Will Republicans join Feinstein? GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine joined Feinstein in a press conference, but House Republicans do not want to be seen as the folks who want to take away soccer moms' keys to their SUVs. "We're not big fans of CAFE standards," explained Richard Diamond, spokesman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Diamond argued that automakers have developed technologies that have largely reduced car emissions, and that the market, not government, should determine which wheels people buy.

Vice President Dick Cheney told CNN the administration is waiting for a National Academy of Sciences report, mandated in a Feinstein measure last year, that is supposed to look into the feasibility of tougher fuel standards. Asked if the administration would push for tougher CAFE standards, Cheney rightly noted, "If it was easy, the Clinton administration would have done it. They ducked it for eight years." (True, despite big campaign promises, Clinton/Gore never changed CAFE standards.)

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the administration wants to make the country more efficient "but in no way put a crimp on the American way of life." Team Bush remembers what happened to President Carter after he told Americans to conserve energy and wear sweaters. Still, President Bush should support tougher CAFE standards for three reasons.

One. While Bush and Cheney rightly are not on board the sky-is-falling global warming bandwagon, America has real problems with air pollution and oil supply. There is a national interest in curbing gasoline consumption. Cheney says there aren't enough refineries; good: then curb mpg's.

Two. While technology has improved tremendously, CAFE standards have been the same for close to 15 years.

Diane Steed of the Coalition for Vehicle Choice made some strong arguments against the Feinstein bill. Then she said the answer could be found in improved hybrid vehicles that get more than 60 mpg and should hit the market in the next few years. In the next breath, however, she argued that it's too much to ask SUVs to meet a 27.5 mpg standard by 2007.

That's inconsistent.

Three. Team Bush wants to preserve the American way of life. The American way today is to demand government make you do what you know you shouldn't do on your own. Polls repeatedly show that the public doesn't want to drill for new oil in Alaska and fears global warming.

And people still buy SUVs.

The answer, Bushies, is clear. Call for doable improvements in the CAFE standards. You won't be the people who took away soccer moms' SUV keys. You'll be the people who passed regulations that allow soccer moms to drive their mini-tanks guilt free.

Comment JWR contributor Debra J. Saunders's column by clicking here.


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