It has become a depressing pattern with George W. Bush: Declare a crisis. Hype it until the prophecy is fulfilled. Ignore the good science that offers a solution. Propose a different plan that will not solve the problem, but will reward wealthy business interests that funded your campaign. Repeat.
First it was the economy. President Bush was enticing a recession from day one, describing the economy like a beached whale: "sputtering" and "slowing down." Dick Cheney warned that the country might be "on the front edge of a recession." With the administration so alarmist, consumer confidence began to flag, softening the economy.
Bush's solution? The tax cut he'd been pushing since before the recession scare: Huge tax cuts for the rich that don't kick in for at least half a decade. Never mind that the rich would tend to save most of their tax cut cash; even if they got their checks today, the cuts wouldn't provide much stimulus to the economy. Economists agree that Bush's plan won't work. Even Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill admits as much. What it will do is reward the wealthy donors who boosted Bush's bid for the White House. Big time.
But Bush is not done whacking consumer confidence; now he's turned to foretelling an "energy crisis" that might spur a recession. As one million Californians suffered blackouts on Monday, the Bush administration seized the moment: "It is clear from first analysis that demand for energy in the United States is increasing much more so than production is," Bush proclaimed, "with the result we are finding in certain parts of the country that we're short on energy, and this administration is concerned about it." Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham jumped in during a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: "This nation's last three recessions have all been tied to rising energy prices, and there is strong evidence that the latest crisis is already having a negative effect." Inviting the Chamber to brood over crashed iMacs and auto plants grinding to a halt, Abraham added, "The bad news is that the situation in California is not isolated, it is not temporary, and it won't fix itself."
The Bush administration promises that Vice President Dick Cheney -- former chief executive of an oil drilling company -- is hard at work on a solution. If California-style blackouts are the crisis (as Abraham indicated in his speech), the solution is clear: Fix the hopelessly tangled deregulation plan -- and rein in greedy power companies that are pulling in profits that are up to three times higher than last year, even as they beg for rate hikes. (The House Progressive Caucus charges that the blackouts in California are not an emergency, but the power companies' strategy to persuade the legislature to let them raise prices.)
Yet once again, the administration's solution has nothing to do with the problem. Previewing Cheney's plan, Abraham said the key component would be exploring for oil and natural gas on federal lands -- including the fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Says The Los Angeles Times' editorial page, "Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, President Bush's signature energy cause, would not generate one kilowatt of electricity for California." This is because oil generates only a tiny fraction of California's electricity.
Even if there is an oil shortage independent of California, drilling in the Wildlife Refuge and other federal lands won't produce oil for 10 years. And even then, the Refuge doesn't have enough oil to make a real dent in the country's demand. Finally, if Bush had really been alarmed about California's electricity crisis, he would have renewed the Clinton administration order requiring suppliers to sell electricity to California. With furrowed brow, he let the order expire on February 7.
President Bush's reaction to the energy crisis he's flogging makes clear that power shortages are not his real concern. Instead, the former oil man is taking advantage of California blackouts to push a plan that will pay his benefactor: big oil. The Refuge may not boost the U.S. energy supply very much, but drilling in it could substantially augment the profits of a lucky oil company.
Bush's affection for oil companies extends beyond the fact that his administration is dripping with former oil execs. Oil and gas gave Republicans almost $11 million in the 2000 election cycle including $4 million in soft money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Those who still doubt Bush's willingness to ignore an avalanche of evidence in the service of wealthy donors need look only as far as yesterday's arsenic announcement: The administration will kill a Clinton administration-approved regulation that would have reduced the legal level of arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. Not only is that the standard adopted by the World Health Organization and the European Union, but the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that water with the current arsenic limit could easily cause cancer. The Academy advocated that the limit be reduced right away.
Why would the Bush administration ignore such overwhelming scientific consensus? Mining companies oppose the stricter standard. The coal mining industry gave $115,000 to Bush during the 2000 election (compared to $16,000 for Al Gore), and $3.4 million to Republicans in general. In addition, "Buck" Harless, head of the West Virginia mining company International Industries, joined the Bush Pioneers, a group of bigwigs who raised more than $100,000 for the Bush campaign. Harless inked his own check of $100,000 to the Bush-Cheney Inaugural Fund in January. And two other mining company executives gave large sums for the Bush bash.
Buck will surely approve of the administration's announcement today. Bush will suspend Clinton administration rules that would have made environmental standards stricter, and made it harder for companies mining public lands to duck responsibility for violating anti-pollution laws.
And that's not all. Last week, the president reversed his campaign pledge to require the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Assisting him in his decision to flip were four Republican senators whose support Bush needs on his tax cut. They are Larry Craig of Idaho, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Pat Roberts of Kansas, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. The oil and gas, electric utilities, and mining industries gave the senators $319,000, $119,000, $140,000 and $251,000, respectively, from 1995 to 2000 -- a period when each would have been up for election once.
It's a clever political strategy. Pass the bills that feed the donors. Use the donations to win reelection. The only trouble is that facts are stubborn things. Bush may say his tax cut will fix the recession. But it won't. And he may pretend arsenic won't cause cancer. But it will. Bush may proclaim that drilling in the Wildlife Refuge will fix the energy crisis and carbon dioxide won't cause global warming. But California will still go dark, and we'll still feel the heat. Bush may think he can feed the donors and still woo the folks. But once his recklessness has caused inevitable harm, he may find the next election will be more difficult than he planned.