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Law requires Congress to lease greener cars

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton is proud to drive a 2007 flex-fuel Chevy Tahoe made at the Arlington GM plant in his district.

But he may have to park it and trade it in for a smaller, more-fuel-efficient vehicle because of a little-noticed provision in last year's energy bill.

That measure requires House members who lease vehicles through their office to make sure they are energy-efficient and eco-friendly.

"For not being a hybrid, this is as good as it gets," Barton, R-Arlington, said of the truck that uses various fuel blends and gets 21 mpg on the highway.

But it may not be good enough.

He won't know if he can keep it until later in the year, after environmental officials release a list of approved vehicles that emit low levels of greenhouse gases.

Barton's far from the only lawmaker impacted.

Republican Rep. Elton Gallegly of California may have to give up his Ford Expedition; Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., may have to give up his flex-fuel Chevy Tahoe.

These are just a few of the 130 House members who lease vehicles, an analysis by the Los Angeles Times and the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense shows.

Barton doesn't want to switch.

"I would prefer to continue supporting the 3,000 mostly union employees at the GM plant in Arlington by driving a vehicle manufactured there, like the Chevy Tahoe," he said. "It should be up to every member to determine a vehicle that best suits the needs of their district."

The amendment

But that's not what House members agreed to last year when they added a provision to the energy bill.

Barton said he voted against the amendment by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., who drives a Ford Econoline that runs on cooking oil and has said he wanted members of Congress to take the lead in such efforts, since they have mandated more fuel-efficient vehicles for the public.

The amendment doesn't impact Reps. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, or Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, because they do not lease vehicles through their House offices. Edwards owns two mini-vans; Granger drives a Chrysler 300, according to their office staffs.

"I've never leased a car through my office," Granger said. "I have no problem with putting restrictions on cars if they're paying for it through the office budget."

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, drives a Toyota Prius hybrid he bought four years ago. He said he supports bettering the environment, but he opposed Cleaver's amendment last year.

"It was so poorly crafted; it was vague, it wasn't explicit," Burgess said. "It didn't say everyone needed to drive a Prius, it just said a vehicle with a low carbon footprint.

"I thought it was another in a long line of relatively insignificant things that Congress has done in the past 14 months," Burgess said. "I'm disappointed the leadership can't do more than that."

Barton said he too voted against the measure because it was vague and didn't factor in differences in members' districts — from size to geography.

"These vehicles are used for official business only. The 6th District of Texas spans eight counties and covers 6,000 square miles," said Barton, the highest ranking Republican on the House Committee of Energy and Commerce. "Often when traveling the district to meet with constituents, I have several staff members with me.

"These trips take hours and this vehicle is practical for the district I represent."

There are few restrictions on what kind of vehicle House members can choose or how much they can spend on them. The federal government pays various costs, including the lease, gas, insurance and registration fees. This practice has been in place for decades. Senators are not allowed to use office budgets for long-term vehicle leases.

Now, House members who do lease through their congressional offices will have to wait for an Environmental Protection Agency-approved list later this year that will detail which vehicles -- those defined as "low greenhouse-gas emitting" -- that will be OK to lease.

Cleaver's vehicle amendment narrowly passed last year, with most Democrats in favor of it and most Republicans opposing it.