Room for bipartisan agreement on energy issues has narrowed drastically since the new Congress took office in January, but there are still a few areas where progress might be made, according to Robert Simon, majority staff director of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee.

Bipartisan energy bills have been held “hostage,” he said – in 2009-10 by cap and trade advocates and now by budget hawks. And it’s not just energy – Simon noted the current Congress has passed just 69 bills since January, a fifth of the output of what President Harry Truman in 1947 dubbed “the do-nothing Congress.”

A “random commentator on cable” put “everyone in a defensive crouch.”

Speaking to the US Association of Energy Economists conference in Washington, DC October 10, Simon said his committee had crafted bipartisan agreement on a range of issues in the last Congress, in 2009-10. Read more notes from the conference: USAEE Notebook: DOE Weighing Export Price Effects.

The panel voted out bills supporting a Clean Energy Development Authority, a national Renewable Energy Standard, facilitation of transmission siting and electric vehicle infrastructure, expanded energy research, small nuclear reactor support, and efficiency improvements in manufacturing, building and appliances.

Also supported last congressional session were cybersecurity for electric grids, expansion of off-shore drilling and improved drilling safety standards, more renewables on federal lands, and support for carbon capture and storage pilot projects.

This session, he said, the areas of bipartisan agreement have narrowed to energy efficiency, expansion of existing hydropower, CCS projects, advanced vehicle research and nuclear research.

The committee’s bills never got floor votes in the previous Congress because advocates of carbon cap and trade held other energy bills “hostage” in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to force a vote on that House-passed measure, Simon said.

In this Congress, energy bills are hostage to the financial debate, he said, with budget hawks are insisting that even authorizations for any new or increased program include reductions in other authorizations. Every program has its constituency, he noted, so different energies are pitted against each other. In the past, those adjustments have been made in appropriations bills, he said.

Simon said another factor is that the influence of “traditional energy constituencies” is being eclipsed by cable and radio commentators. He cited the uproar over light bulb efficiency standards, a bipartisan measure passed in the last administration, which suddenly morphed this year into “the light bulb ban.”

Manufacturers, who have made investments to comply with the new law and need more efficient bulbs to sell in other markets, tried to provide facts.

But a “random commentator on cable” put “everyone in a defensive crouch,” he said.

Simon said he believes the public will eventually demand that Congress actually do something, and he noted a lot of work is going on in the background, as industry, states, and advocacy groups tackle energy problems.

He said most work on Capitol Hill is on hold for the work of the budget Supercommittee, 12 members of both houses who are trying, before year’s end, to negotiate new spending and tax limits to reduce the deficit.

Photo Caption: US Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) (center) speaks as Senate Majority Whip Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) (left), and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) (right) listen during a news conference October 5, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.