SACRAMENTO: A leading Senate challenger turned his congressional subcommittee into a
high-profile platform to criticize Democratic officials and California’s energy regulators the last two years.
Now, Democratic officials may use Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Ose’s chairmanship of a House Government Reform subcommittee against him as he edges closer to a bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer next year.
Ose returned $6,500 of the nearly $33,500 in energy companies’ campaign contributions he received as he traveled the state for subcommittee hearings. And like Boxer, Ose sold energy stock during the height of the state’s power crisis, giving the profits to charity as the wealthy developer does each year with his congressional pay raise.
But that isn’t insulating Ose from criticism for his defense of the Bush administration’s energy and environmental policies, areas where Boxer has tried to make her mark.
Democrats complain majority Republicans have used the Government Reform Committee for years as a partisan bludgeon, as Republicans did when Democrats had the majority.
Ose used his subpanel to probe undeclared gifts taken by Bill and Hillary Clinton when they left the White House, and criticize Clinton’s final lame-duck environmental policy changes.
But he focused his Energy Policy, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs Subcommittee largely on California-oriented problems like the state’s energy system, gasoline additives ethanol and MTBE, and air pollution.
“The California energy crisis was largely created by the state of California,” Ose said in April 2001 while opening a subcommittee hearing in Sacramento as blackouts rolled across the state. It’s a theme he’s continued ever since, though he denies any political motivation.
Yet the criticism he’s receiving could wind up helping Ose at least in the short term, countering views that he isn’t conservative enough to win the GOP nomination to take on the liberal Boxer.
Ose, 47, was the first to form a Senate exploratory committee, a month after he won re-election in November. The three-term congressman from Sacramento pledged not to seek a fourth when he won his safe Republican seat 1998 – but said last week he hasn’t decided if he’ll honor the promise.
He began his public attacks on Boxer last month, alleging her vote against a $397.4 billion federal spending bill was a vote against schools and after-school programs.
Ose hosted two events at last month’s California Republican convention, using the opportunity to criticize Boxer for votes against defense and intelligence-gathering spending he said undermined the nation’s ability to detect and respond to terrorist threats. As he told reporters he won’t decide on a race for three or four months, aides distributed glossy media packages on his accomplishments.
During subcommittee hearings the last two years, Ose defended Bush and was sharply critical of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and state energy regulators.
“They created a market that was totally dysfunctional,” Ose said in an interview last week. “If someone objects to me pointing that out to people, that’s fine.”
His support for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission particularly rankles Democratic officials who blame FERC for fiddling while California burned in the midsummer heat.
“Since FERC hasn’t lifted a finger to help California, being simpatico with FERC is nothing to claim credit for,” said Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio, who dismisses Ose as “the power companies’ best friend.”
Ose urged FERC to adopt Western electricity price caps months before two Bush appointees joined the commission and imposed limits. That, Ose said, led to a “drastic reduction in energy prices for California rate-payers.” He praised FERC in August 2001 for mimicking the market monitoring technology employed by since-failed energy trader Enron among others.
“You can’t compete with these guys if you don’t have the same corporate tools,” he says now. “A lot of people think I was out of line. But what have they proposed?”
Davis says he has been vindicated by civil and criminal allegations and settlements with power generators and brokers.
Ose acknowledged last week that “some participants were gaming the system,” but “I have yet to quantify to what degree. … I am not going to rush to judgment.”
Last year he accused the state’s electricity grid managers of conspiring with energy trader Enron to drive up energy prices, using the incident to urge FERC to take control of the grid away from Davis’ appointees. The California Independent System Operator later fired a single employee it said actually was trying to lower prices.
Ose, too, believes events have supported his criticism of California’s sloppy deregulation law, of Davis for locking the state into long-term energy contracts as prices peaked, and of Davis appointees for blocking utilities from signing long-term contracts when prices were low.
“The market design that led to these problems was crafted under his tenure,” Ose said.
Ose publicly called on the Bush administration last year to release documents on meetings between Vice President Dick Cheney’s National Energy Policy Development Group and energy business executives.
But Ose generally has defended Bush’s energy strategy and appointments to FERC, while Boxer alleged that Cheney “got his marching orders from Enron” in rejecting federal assistance to California.
“The contrast between Sen. Boxer and Congressman Ose couldn’t be more clear,” said Douglas Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “She was one of the first federal lawmakers to point the finger at the power companies and question their role … while Congressman Ose was defending the federal bureaucracy and the power companies.”
Ose denies ignoring energy generators’ manipulation, and last month reintroduced legislation that would let FERC impose penalties on price gougers.
If he runs for the Senate, Ose potentially faces nomination battles with last year’s gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon; U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination to run against Boxer in 1998; and U.S. Rep. George Radanovich of Mariposa.
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