By MARTIN SCHRAM
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
America's most powerful and effective national security weapon is not the Stealth bomber nor the cruise missile. It's not even listed in the Pentagon budget.
It is the Toyota Prius -- also the Ford Escape and other full-hybrid or similar gas-saving vehicles. They are our best hope for ending America's self-endangering dependence on Middle East oil. Petrodollars we have long paid to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere too often have wound up as protection money or look-the-other-way charity bribes paid to militant Muslim clerics who sympathize with, support and may even be terrorists.
Saudis are as happy as kids in a sandbox over the fact that soaring oil prices are giving them a windfall budget surplus that has been estimated at $26 billion or more for this year.
This is one of those problems where the government and the people can make a difference. If they have the will, there is a way. Our cars and SUVs combined are less efficient today than they were in the 1980s -- because of the great increase in SUVs on the road today. But if our cars averaged 40 miles per gallon, it would cut U.S. oil consumption by 2 to 3 millions of barrels a day -- which would cut the price of oil by more than $20 a barrel.
A word about hybrids: Not all hybrids are equal. Toyota's Prius, which has both gasoline-powered and electric-powered motors, and the Ford Escape, a small sports utility vehicle built with technology from Toyota, can start up and run at lower speeds entirely using their electric motors. But the Honda hybrid vehicles, in contrast, have two motors but run on both simultaneously, with the electric motor permitting the gas-powered engine to run more efficiently. (Meanwhile, when the brakes are applied on the Toyota, Ford Escape and Honda hybrids, good things happen: Not only do the cars stop, but the heat energy from the braking is captured and used to recharge the battery for the electric motors.)
But more important, not all hybrid technology is being used equally. Toyota uses its hybrid technology for its full-size SUV, the Highlander, and a Lexus luxury full-size SUV, only in part to increase the mileage -- but also to increase the engine's power. Honda does much the same with its Accord hybrid. The tradeoff is a car that is more powerful but with gas mileage that is not as great as it could have been.
There is some good news: This national-security way of thinking about hybrid and similar gas-saving vehicles is being accepted at last by the government, in a way that is broad if not deep. And skyrocketing gasoline prices, coupled with skyrocketing oil company profits, have forced even an administration run by (and sympathetic to) oil men to begin addressing with new urgency the problem of America's dependence on imported oil.
Thus, the new energy bill, while providing bountiful incentives to oil companies, also provides a modest but significant one-time tax credit (up to $3,400) to a motorist who buys a hybrid or other vehicle with similar gas-saving capability. It doesn't fully pay for the added cost of the hybrid car, but it helps.
But now we need do more. We need to be sure that we are using that government money to deploy our new and best national security weapon with the same urgency that we use for the deploying all the other high-tech missiles and bombers that keep us safe.
That means we need to rethink -- and probably retarget -- the Bush tax cuts.
We are not arguing here to roll back or deep-six President Bush's tax cuts. We are only suggesting that while the total amount of the Bush tax cuts remains unchanged, perhaps we can target money we are spending so that we get in return what our nation needs most -- in this case, consumers buying gas-saving cars.
Perhaps the government ought to be using the Bush tax cuts not as a broad-but-small give-back to all taxpayers, but as significant incentives in the form of credits to all who drive cars that have mileage of 45 miles per gallon -- every year that they drive them. This would provide a huge incentive that keeps on giving. It would provide a huge incentive to keep taxpayers buying, energizing the economy as Bush's tax cuts always envisioned -- but spending their money in a way that helps America most and drives us toward energy independence.
X Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.