Members, Revise Your Engines

Big, Honkin’ Vehicles to Be Replaced by EPA-Approved Cars

Posted May 30, 2008 at 6:00pm

Goodbye sleek Lincoln Navigator, hello sensible Toyota Prius.

That’s the word Members received late last month when the Office of Administrative Counsel handed down a list of vehicles approved under a program that allows House Members to lease cars with taxpayer funds.

The 26-page list, created by the Environmental Protection Agency, limits the leasing program to fuel-efficient models that for some Members may be less flashy than their typical rides such as Cadillacs and Lincolns.

Members “can still get the same vehicle, it just probably won’t have the same juice,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said.

Fitting into the House Democrats’ attempt to green the Capitol, Cleaver introduced a bill in 2005 requiring Members to drive “low greenhouse gas-emitting vehicles” through the federal leasing program, which covers the cost of the car, insurance and gas for more than 140 participants. The bill was enacted in 2007, but with no specifics on which cars were deemed low-emitters, Members continued leasing their preferred models, including boat-sized sedans and sport utility vehicles.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), an early critic of the rule, maintains that it is too vague to be applied to 435 Members.

A former oil company engineer, Barton drives around his district in a 2007 flex-fuel Chevrolet Tahoe, which gets 21 miles per gallon and costs $705.90 a month for a two-year lease. Barton’s Tahoe was made at a General Motors plant in Arlington, Texas. His spokesman said such a hefty vehicle is necessary to tool around the 6,000-square-mile district.

“A car that works in New York City won’t work in Texas,” the spokesman said, adding that Barton leases a “regular sedan” in Washington, where the terrain is less rough.

The car that works in New York City, at least for Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) , is a Cadillac DeVille. The dapper Ways and Means chairman has been riding around his Harlem-centered district in the Caddie since 2004 and has no plans of turning in the keys. Not a single Cadillac made the list.

“There’s no way in the world I’m going to get a new lease. I just want what I got,” Rangel said.

There are some bright spots in the EPA’s vehicle list, which includes a few luxury models that offer leather seats, wood-paneled dashboards and souped-up engines. The list includes nearly three dozen BMW models, including the 528XI, which starts at $46,500, and the sleek Porsche Boxster S, a 295-horsepower two-seater that retails for around $55,000. More sensible (and American-made) choices include a Chevrolet Impala, Ford Escape Hybrid and Mercury Sable.

All car leases have to be approved by the Office of Administrative Counsel, which is also responsible for enforcing the low- emission rule.

Members with cars not on the list can keep them throughout the life of the current lease but will have to switch to an approved vehicle for future leases. Leases typically go for two years to coincide with the length of a Member’s term. The Office of Administrative Counsel did not grant requests for a list detailing Members’ leases, maintaining the information is not public.

Setting an example for his House colleagues, Cleaver maneuvers around his Kansas City district in a leased Ford Econoline Van that once served as an airport shuttle bus. Its diesel engine was converted to run on vegetable oil, which powers Cleaver through his western Missouri district at 70 cents per gallon. “It also smells like french fries [and] burgers instead of smoke,” Cleaver said proudly.

Though Cleaver touts his grease-powered vehicle as a low-emission alternative to Tahoes and Cadillacs, the Ford Econoline did not make the EPA’s list of acceptable cars for the federal leasing program. The office is hoping their beloved van will eventually make the cut.

“We actually don’t know the status of our vehicle,” Cleaver spokesman Sam Burnett said. “If it is breaking the rule, it is not breaking it in spirit.”