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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Witch hunts in Washington

    Global warming is leading to more witch hunts.

    This was the provocative assertion made by Nicolas Kristof, citing a recent rash of suspected “”penis theft”” in Uganda, along with an uptick in witch killing in Tanzania. While Kristof’s correlation may not necessarily lead to causation, you don’t have to look beyond our borders to see this trend in action.

    With our sordid past at Salem, Mass., however, Americans tend to eschew the term “”witch hunt””; we prefer the legalese equivalent: “”investigative Congressional inquiry.”” Instead of single women and Jews, our Congress aims the accusing finger at just about anyone who bothers them.

    This April, the U.S. Congress demanded that the executives in the oil industry testify before Congress on the record regarding oil prices and high cost of gasoline at the pump. This is exactly the same argument Congress used to drag these executives before them in 2007, as well as 2005.

    What is wrong with such hearings? For one, they fail to consider facts beyond the fifth-grade level interpretation that, “”Big, evil oil is secretly driving up gas prices, leading to massive profits.”” Congress blithely ignores the impact of what is becoming significant inflation, which not only drives up the price of gas, but reduces the real worth of the supposed “”record”” profits of the major oil corporations. It also ignores the fact that government taxes on gas account for around twenty percent of the total cost. It also ignores the extremely thin profit margins of the industry. The profit margin for the oil industry is 9.5 percent, which may seem large until you consider that the shipping industry’s profit margin is 18.8 percent and periodical publishing comes in at a whopping 24.5 percent. How long until we get an investigation into Big magazine?

    These officials may be fair in suggesting an end to tax breaks and subsidies to these corporations, as Rep. Edward Markey did; indeed, the idea of subsidies for the companies is a tad bit absurd. Their ignorance is apparent, though, in portraying this as a method to fight high prices at the gas pump. If anything, the removal of these breaks will lead to higher overall costs for the consumer, since formerly subsidized costs will have to be made up somehow. Furthermore, it is highly hypocritical to denounce these subsidies when U.S. agricultural subsidies continue to directly contribute to food riots the world around.

    Yet if the oil industry is not at fault, the skeptics will ask, what do they have to fear from these hearings? This brings us back to the legacy of Salem; try replacing “”the oil industry”” with “”witches,”” and “”hearings”” with “”trials,”” and you can see the problem emerge. Congressional hearings act above and beyond any sense of American law and order, where you are guilty before proven innocent (which, in their eyes, you rarely are). Members of Congress will hide behind the fact that these hearings are “”optional,”” which is kind of like a 16th century Massachusetts court saying that a woman doesn’t have to stand in her defense. “”We just want to ask a few questions”” is a classic construction used by police seeking to avoid the use of warrants or to subvert a suspect’s right to an attorney.

    While the “”Big Oil Hunt”” may be the featured show, this is just one in a series of public pillories. Who could forget the “”Steroid Circus,”” followed by Sen. Arlen Specter’s threat to do the same thing to the NFL over the “”Videogate”” scandal? This, just a year after the inquiry into the tax-free status of NCAA athletics. Congress has also investigated endowments, discovering that they were apparently pretty large, and the insidious tax haven known as Second Life. The body has an uncanny habit of “”investigating”” just about everything that bothers it, without considering whether they actually can, or, if it falls within their Constitutional bounds, even should.

    To be fair, there have been effective congressional investigations; a few that come to mind are the Watergate commission and the Iraq Study Group. These investigations, however, have been successful insofar as their scope does not expand outside of the sphere of government. The moment these powers are used as a quasi-legal prosecutorial tool, however, any sense of genuine “”good government”” check-up is lost.

    Ultimately, these witch hunts reveal the absurdity of their claims. If subsidies and tax breaks were truly so bad, then Congress has all the authority it needs to eliminate every last one of them. If the major oil corporations were colluding together to jack up prices, anti-trust legislation could be used to institute penalties. Rather than using these investigations as a stage on which to grandstand, Congress should direct these inquiries where they have been most effective: upon themselves.

    Evan Lisull unfortunately is not being paid by the Exxon Mobil Corporation to write this column. He can be reached at

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