Ken Garcia: Gas price panic at the pump, and more so on Capitol Hill

Nothing will drive Americans to the polls or politicians into crisis management faster than rising fuel prices.

The rhetoric in the nation’s capital over whom to blame or how to deal with soaring gas prices reached a new level of absurdity in the past few days when Senate GOP leader Bill Frist announced his intention to provide taxpayers with a $100 rebate this year. That might get a few Hummer owners a day of relief at the gas pump but won’t help the average consumer grapple with the growing sticker shock.

And you know there’s a problem brewing when conservative motor mouth Rush Limbaugh blasts his own party’s instant rebate plan, saying Americans can’t be bought like so many streetwalkers.

By the time summer rolls around, which is the time gas prices magically rise each year as families take to the road on vacation, the panic levels could — like the oil industry’s profits — begin to set record highs. Officials from the Bush administration fanned out across the airwaves Sunday, calling the gas price hikes a crisis, clearly worried about the effect on midterm elections in November.

“We need to leave behind a legacy in which this country is headed toward weaning itself from its dependence on foreign oil,’’ said Josh Bolten, Bush’s new chief of staff. And that might have sounded like a bold statement about six years ago, if the administration hadn’t spent the intervening years cozying up to the oil industry.

The president said he wants Congress to give him the power to raise fuel efficiency standards for cars — an idea so old you’d have to wonder why U.S. automakers have spent so much time and money resisting an increase in hybrid car development and production.

So how do consumers react to the incredible spike in fuel prices? By buying thirsty vehicles. Sales figures from the first three months of this year show that Americans are still buying as many gas guzzlers as they did in 2005. And you wonder why the oil companies can barely contain their joy.

But you don’t have to be in Washington to see the face of the political crisis in the Beltway. All you need to do is drive to a gas station and watch the stunned looks of drivers as they fuel up.

“Unbelievable,’’ John Morris said as he watch the numbers flicker on the pump at the Arco station in Daly City’s Westlake area as he filled his 2004 Jeep Cherokee SUV on Monday. “If I had any sense that this might happen, I’d have bought a Civic.’’

Watching people fume over the growing gascrisis is part of what I like to call the pothole theory of politics. People often don’t pay attention to actions in government until it hits them directly — like every time their car runs over a pothole.

Then they’re reminded of how much time their elected officials spend on issues that have little impact on their lives. This is particularly true in San Francisco, where ideological pursuits fuel illogical legislation — but even in GOP country, big government only gets a pass as long as it stays out of your pocketbook.

Yet cars — and the gas that fuels them — incite reaction across all political lines, in part because of the deeply held American belief in our inalienable right to drive. Republicans and Democrats have spent the past few weeks railing about price-gouging, yet no one is willing to demand that people cut their gas consumption or curb their driving. The seemingly unquenchable thirst for gas has set up a strange dynamic — experts are saying people need to break their addiction to oil at the same time politicians are looking for ways to increase production.

So there is great irony in the fact that many of the ideas floated to ease the price crunch — a windfall tax on oil profits or a reduction in the federal gas tax — have already been killed in Congress.

But now it’s become a very large problem, one that administration officials say is going to last years. If you thought $3 for a gallon of gas was high, how about $4? At the rate that the price of fuel is rising, it’s certainly conceivable — especially since the U.S. energy czar has stated flatly that the oil suppliers have lost control of the market, a scary thought for anyone who knows that Congress can’t address simple laws of supply and demand.

Its members could certainly have addressed alternative energy solutions and tougher emission standards and tax breaks to the oil companies worth billions. But they weren’t counting votes then — or the number of potholes on the road to re-election.

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