High gasoline prices have jump-started a long overdue national conversation on the consequences of U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Since gas prices crossed the magic $3-a-gallon threshold a few weeks ago, we've seen a rush of proposals on Capitol Hill and in the state capitals seeking to provide relief to an angry electorate. Conspicuously absent from most of the schemes being put forward is any serious plan to address the underlying problem; increasing fuel consumption.

Most Americans realize that quick fixes are not going to solve the real problem that is driving our energy woes: what President Bush called "our national addiction to oil." Politicians have been tripping over each other to lay blame for the rise in gas prices on the weather, environmentalists, OPEC, or the oil companies. But, when it comes to real solutions, they've been oddly silent.

In the next few weeks, the President and members of Congress will have the chance to show whether they are serious about solving America's energy problems. A debate and vote is scheduled on the one proven measure that can significantly reduce our consumption of oil: fuel economy standards.

Fuel economy standards helped significantly during the first energy crisis in the 1970s. At the time, gasoline prices were going through the roof and Detroit automakers were stuck trying to sell gas-guzzling behemoths, and getting clobbered by imports in the marketplace as a result. (Sound familiar?)

In 1975, despite dire warnings from our automakers, Congress adopted federal fuel economy standards. Over the next decade and a half, the standards led to a doubling of the fuel economy of the nation's vehicles. By 1978, gasoline consumption began to fall. Oil imports fell, too. It would take until 1993 before we again used as much gasoline as we did in the late 1970s.

Since then, however, Congress and successive administrations failed to ratchet up fuel economy standards. According to the EPA, the new vehicles sold last year were actually less efficient on average than those sold when Ronald Reagan was president.

Why has this happened? Because increasing fuel economy standards requires members of Congress to stand up to powerful special interests, led by the big automakers. And standing up to powerful special interests has never been Congress' strong suit.

But they need to start now, and here's why: unlike the energy crisis of the 1970s, the oil crisis this time is not going away. A growing chorus of experts is warning that the era of "cheap oil" is over. The European Union, Japan and even China have recognized this, adopting fuel economy standards well beyond those currently in place in the U.S.

Increasing fuel economy standards doesn't mean that we'll all have to ride around in tiny, dangerous clown cars, as the auto industry likes to suggest. A 2002 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study found that big improvements in fuel economy are technologically feasible and cost-effective for all types of vehicles, from subcompacts to SUVs. And that was back when gasoline prices were $1.50 per gallon and before hybrid vehicles became a mainstream alternative for American consumers.

Making cars go farther on a gallon of gas isn't going to bring gasoline prices down next week or next year - almost nothing short of a major conservation effort would. Increasing the average fuel economy of vehicles from today's 24.6 miles per gallon to 33 MPG would be a strong first step toward reducing our oil addiction while, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, saving consumers $19 billion a year at the pump within a decade.

The upcoming debate over fuel economy in Congress is a rare "put up or shut up" moment. Members of Congress should stand up for the vast majority of Americans (86 percent in one recent poll) who support stronger fuel economy standards and face down the powerful interests who have been standing in the way.

If they don't, they will have to stop blaming scapegoats for America's sorry energy situation, and start blaming themselves.