As Congress begins its brief pre-election work session this week, there will be a lot of talk about energy. To be more than campaign slogans, the talk must address a core problem — the United States uses far more oil and gas than it produces. The solution is a mix of measures including more efficient use of existing oil and gas resources, exploration for new sources and development of alternative energy.

Lawmakers could take some cues from an unexpected source — President Gerald Ford’s 1975 State of the Union Address. “Our growing dependence upon foreign sources has been adding to our vulnerability for years and years, and we did nothing to prepare ourselves,” he said. The solution? Reducing consumption and increasing production.

Then President Ford proposed something radical: Increased tariffs on imported oil, at a time of high gas prices and general economic difficulty. He did this because he understood that high prices are needed for major changes in energy policy.

To cut consumption he proposed a 40 percent increase in automobile gas mileage (remember President Ford had represented Michigan in the House for more than two decades), insulation standards for new buildings and tax credits for families who insulated their homes.

In his speech, he also called for increased drilling, both offshore and across the country, more nuclear power plants, more coal mines and the development of synthetic fuels.

He likened the work to be done to secure America’s energy independence to the country’s building of more than 100,000 planes a year during World War II.

Congress balked at most of his proposals and fuel prices fell. Thirty years later, however, President Ford’s prescription is still the medicine the United States needs.

Before the August recess, Democrats and Republicans had entrenched positions: Republicans wanted more drilling (a position they aren’t likely to move away from given the popularity of the “Drill baby, drill” chant at their convention) and Democrats wanted more support for alternative energy and conservation. All of these must be up for debate, with an honest assessment of their benefits and drawbacks.

Take drilling, for example. The United States now uses about 20 million barrels of oil per day. The Outer Continental Shelf, mostly the Gulf of Mexico, produces about 1.5 million barrels per day, about a third of total U.S. production. Even if production is doubled by lifting the ban on drilling on much of the shelf, a centerpiece of the Republican energy policy, this won’t do much to dent our dependence on foreign oil.

That is why conservation and alternative energy are also needed. Yet, Congress has failed to agree on an extension of tax credits for wind, solar and other alternative energy credits. Both presidential candidates have run television ads featuring windmills, yet both Barack Obama and John McCain failed to show up to vote for the tax credit on July 30. Sen. McCain also missed the previous seven votes on the tax credit.

America must both produce more of its own energy — from a variety of sources — and use less to power day-to-day life. A responsible energy policy would put the country on the path to do both.