It is amusing to watch Republican senators trapped between their two main constituencies: the oil industry and, uh, their constituents. Voters are pissed about high gas prices and home-heating costs, and they can’t help but notice that oil companies are swimming in huge piles of cash. Of course Republicans aren’t going to do anything that might offend the oil industry, but they need to look like they’re doing something.

What’s the answer? A hearing!

So they drag five oil executives to Congress. The results defy parody. Virtually every paragraph of this Reuters story is a masterpiece of black humor. It begins:

Under fire for high fuel prices, five major oil companies on Wednesday warned the U.S. Senate against levying a windfall profits tax and showed little interest in donating money to help poor Americans pay winter heating bills.

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Well, that should set voters’ minds at ease! But it immediately gets even better:

The companies, which earned a collective $30 billion in the third quarter, also surprised lawmakers at a Senate hearing by saying they didn’t need the billions of dollars in tax breaks and energy incentives recently approved by Congress.

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Ha! Get that? Don’t tax us. Don’t ask us to voluntarily contribute. And don’t subsidize us. Just leave us alone.

Oh, but there is one thing … namely the ability to build new refineries without filling out the paperwork and drill everywhere.

Chevron chief executive David O’Reilly said that instead of incentives, refiners need environmental regulations relaxed. “I would much prefer to see streamlined permitting … than tax incentives,” he said. …

The companies also unanimously urged lawmakers to relax environmental regulations and lift restrictions on drilling in areas now off-limits, like an Alaskan wildlife reserve.

Yes, if I want unbiased advice on energy strategies, I go straight to the guys making billions of dollars off oil.

It’s like the whole thing was designed to make Senators look pathetic. Lest that point be lost:

It was unclear if the hearing would lead to any new energy laws or simply allow senators to express indignation at high prices.

And if any doubt remains whether this was pure theater …

Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska, head of the Senate Commerce Committee and a longtime ally of oil interests, kept a tight rein on the hearing. He stopped Democrats from asking executives about their annual pay, and refused to have the five men take an oath to tell the truth in their testimony.

That avoided an embarrassing photo akin to when tobacco executives raised their right hands at a 1994 congressional hearing and swore cigarettes were not addictive.

Yes, we certainly wouldn’t want this hearing to embarrass oil execs. Better to embarrass the rest of us.