Americans believe gas prices will climb higher heading into the summer driving season, new polling suggests, and they put the oil industry and Wall Street speculators at the top of the list of villains behind higher prices at the pump.
How high do people see prices getting three months from now? The average expectation is $4.75 per gallon of regular unleaded fuel, according to a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP survey of 906 adults nationwide released Friday. That would be up 20 percent from the current national average of $3.93, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report.
The business and finance communities get the biggest share of the blame. Nearly one-quarter of those polled blame the oil industry most for rising gasoline prices; roughly 20 percent most blame Wall Street speculators. Politicians don't get off scot-free, however. Fourteen percent most blame the Obama administration and 9 percent blame Congress.
Previous polls show that the public believes the White House, particularly, could do more to keep a lid on the cost of gasoline. A CBS/New York Times poll from March showed 54 percent of Americans believe President Obama "can do a lot about" gas prices, and a Gallup poll from earlier in the same month showed 85 percent supporting "immediate actions" by both Mr. Obama and Congress to lower prices.
So how have Democrats and Republicans answered the bell? For Republicans, Friday's Monitor/TIPP poll shows strong approval for drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (53 percent), off America's coasts (62 percent), and in oil shale deposits in the American West (63 percent). The poll's margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.
As such findings are largely consistent with prior polling, congressional Republicans have repeatedly offered legislation to expand the scope of drilling. One pending bill would prevent the president from dipping into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, an oil stockpile to be used in emergency circumstances, unless he increases domestic energy production. And provisions in the House budget proposal approved last week would increase the scope of drilling on federal lands.
House Speaker John Boehner's favored mechanism to fund the nation's transportation investments would, in addition, use increased revenue from energy production to offset higher infrastructure spending.
Obama, for his part, called for an "all of the above" energy strategy in his State of the Union address, giving many Republicans hope for headway on drilling issues. Since then, he has emphasized that there are "no silver bullets" on rising energy prices.
"You need a sustained, comprehensive policy to insulate ourselves from these kinds of fluctuations in the oil market in the future," said White House spokesman Jay Carney at a press briefing last week. "There are options that do exist that [the president] will continue to examine. But anyone who suggests that there's a single action that you can take as a politician and candidate or a member of Congress that will suddenly reduce the price of oil, and therefore the price of gas at the pump, is blowing hot air."
In response, the Republicans have dogged the Democrats' agenda at nearly every turn by questioning how their proposals will affect gas prices.
Just before a Democratic conference call Thursday on the so-called Buffett rule, an Obama proposal that would enforce a minimum tax rate on high-income taxpayers, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in an e-mailed statement, "[t]his is yet another proposal from Democrats that won’t create a single job or lower the price at the pump by a penny, but may have the opposite effect. Just as with their proposal to raise taxes on American energy manufacturers and increase the cost of energy, this is yet another sign that they’re out of ideas and simply focused on tax hike show-votes."
Congressional Democrats, for their part, have put forward policy proposals that seize on blame for oil companies and financiers. The "show vote" derided by Senator McConnell was a Senate Democratic effort to pass a bill ending tax breaks for the five largest international oil companies. While garnering 51 votes, the measure fell short of the 60 needed to break a Republican filibuster. Four Democrats voted against the measure.
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California, moreover, has frequently discussed the role of Wall Street speculation in rising oil prices. Ms. Pelosi kicked off a House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing Wednesday on Wall Street speculation's effect on oil prices by ruminating on "The Agony and the Ecstasy," a 1960s novel about the Italian master Michelangelo.
Pelosi said high gas prices make her consider "the agony of our consumers for the price at the pump and what that means to them. Especially people who are having trouble making ends meet and how the high-cost at the pump is really an obstacle to them," Pelosi said. "The agony is for them. The ecstasy is for Big Oil."
But to continue Pelosi's literary pondering, could the gas price debate turn out to be much ado about nothing?
Americans have consistently told pollsters that fuel costs hammer them in their wallets no matter the price. More than 6 in 10 say they suffer at the pump at pretty much every price point. In April 2006, 69 percent of drivers polled by CNN/ORC said gas prices had caused them financial hardship. The expectation for summer pump prices that year? $2.62 per gallon. In March, 71 percent of Americans told CNN/ORC the same, even as gas prices nosed up against $4 nationwide. The lowest reading in the intervening years? Sixty percent.