Oh brother, where art thou? 

Zell Miller's down-home logic on behalf of big automakers

As far back as 17 years ago, U.S. Sen. Zell Miller railed against stereotyping mountainfolk as lazy, stupid and drunk. Miller was lieutenant governor in July 1985 when he wrote a guest column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"My anger on this score is aroused daily when I see 'Snuffy Smith' in his horizontal posture, nursing a jug of moonshine, verbally abusing his wife and refusing to work," he wrote.

On March 13 on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Miller didn't exactly puff on a corncob pipe. But he did enlist his own stereotype -- that of the simple "working man" from the country who ain't gonna understand any complicated debate about helping the country become more energy efficient.

What Miller didn't mention was that he was evoking his mountain man's wisdom on behalf of big car companies and big oil companies rather than on behalf of the little guy.

Miller's speech came during a debate over a series of amendments to the president's energy plan about fuel efficiency for automobile manufacturers. An amendment sponsored by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., would have increased miles per gallon standards by almost 50 percent. Kerry's proposal also would have tightened a loophole in federal regulations that exempt SUVs from the tougher, passenger-car standards.

The last time Congress raised fuel efficiency standards was in 1975. But SUVs and pickup trucks were given separate lower standards; now, they're so popular that the overall fuel efficiency of new vehicles actually dropped last year to the lowest point since 1980.

In the midst of the debate, Miller hit the floor with a proposal to exempt pickup trucks from any new standards. Under his plan, the total fleet of pickups sold by each manufacturer never would have to get more than their current efficiency level -- 20.7 miles per gallon.

"I suspect more problems have been solved on the tailgates of pickup trucks after a long day's work than have been solved anywhere ... On this one, you can trust this man from the mountains of North Georgia," he said.

Amid much congratulations over Miller's country charm, his amendment passed 56-44.

The biggest winners were U.S. auto manufacturers, who specialize in selling larger trucks; the biggest losers may have been the 4.1 million people who breathe in Atlanta. Atlanta hasn't met clean air standards for more than a decade, and cars and trucks account for about half the metro area's smog.

In a statement to CL afterward, Miller said: "I am well aware of Atlanta's air problems, but I don't believe higher [miles per gallon] standards are the answer. We've had [fuel efficiency] standards since the 1970s and they have not worked. We are driving more today, not less. We are more dependent on foreign oil today, not less. We are driving bigger cars today, not smaller."

Of course, bigger vehicles are on the road because of the existing exemption for SUVs and pickups -- an exemption Miller made stronger with his amendment.

During the debate over his amendment, Kerry pointed to a National Academy of Sciences study that says higher efficiency could be phased in over time at no appreciable cost to manufacturers or drivers. His amendment offered a 13-year timeline. Raising the miles per gallon standards would have saved about 1 million barrels of oil per day by 2016 and 2 million barrels of oil per day by 2020.

Just before Miller's proposal passed, the Senate (including Miller and U.S. Sen. Max Cleland) voted 62-38 to give the U.S. Department of Transportation two years to devise new fuel standards "in a way that does not harm the domestic [automobile] manufacturing industry."

Seeing that he'd lose, Kerry pulled his amendment before it could be voted on.

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