George II: Back to Business as Usual



As George W. Bush settles into the White House, it should be no surprise that he turned to the most conservative ranks for the people who will lead his new administration. For someone who finished more than 539,000 votes behind Al Gore in the general election, and had to rely on the Republican majority on the Supreme Court to put him in office, Bush is running quite a bluff to claim a popular mandate for a trillion-dollar tax break, school vouchers and government deregulation. But the corporate executives who invested $100 million in his campaign expect a lot out of him. That's why they were willing to lend their best and brightest to help in the transition from a Democratic administration that was merely corporation-friendly to a Republican administration that is positively supine to corporate interests.

John Mintz of the Washington Post in a Jan. 17 review of the Bush transition's ministrations, noted that the vast majority of the 474 members of President-Select Bush's transition advisory teams were industry lobbyists, corporate executives, trade association leaders and others with a pro-business agenda.

The Environmental Working Group analyzed the lists of transition advisers selecting top officials at the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Energy. One-third of those transition advisers were listed in Washington Representatives, a publication which tracks lobbyists, consultants, and influence peddlers inside the Beltway.

EWG found that 18 of the 38 people advising Interior, as well as 17 of the 48 assigned to Energy and 14 of 31 dealing with Agriculture, were either lobbyists or ranking corporate executives. Public interest organizations were outnumbered 10 to 1 on the transition panels. "This operation is loaded with powerful polluting interests," Brendan DeMelle, an EWG analyst, told the Post.

Despite his pledge to work on a bipartisan basis to unite the country, Bush packed his Cabinet with right-wingers without substantial input from Democrats. The only Democrat Bush selected for his Cabinet was Norman Y. Mineta as transportation secretary. Bush also promised to follow through with his campaign promises without concession to the Democrats, despite the fact that the Senate membership is tied 50-50. Bush's pick for attorney general, John Ashcroft, two years ago decried Republicans "who preach pragmatism, champion conciliation, counsel compromise," as Dana Milbank noted in the Jan. 9 Washington Post. Bush may soon find out whether the Democrats are willing and able to use their ability to block objectionable bills through filibusters, which require 60 votes to break.

On Inauguration Day the Democrats agreed to seven Cabinet nominees: Colin Powell as Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary, Paul O'Neill as treasury secretary, Rod Paige as education secretary, Spencer Abraham as energy secretary, Donald Evans as commerce secretary and Ann Veneman as agriculture secretary. Confirmed Jan. 23 were Mitch Daniels as Office of Management and Budget director, Mel Martinez as housing secretary and Anthony Principi as veterans affairs secretary

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), on "Meet the Press Jan. 7, noted: "Bipartisanship is finding compromise. I would respectfully suggest that the president-elect, who ran on the notion that he is a uniter, that he will bring people together, had [Montana Gov.] Marc Racicot, [Oklahoma Gov. Frank] Keating, former senator John Danforth," three relatively moderate Republicans, on his list, but that "they were vetoed by an element of the Republican Party that only wanted a John Ashcroft."

Bush's selection of Linda Chavez as labor secretary appeared to be a calculated insult to organized labor, before Chavez was discovered to have harbored an undocumented immigrant who worked in her home during the same period she was criticizing a Clinton administration nominee for employing an undocumented immigrant.

After this peccadillo forced Chavez to withdraw, Bush's second choice for labor secretary, Elaine Chao, was much more agreeable to labor leaders. An immigrant from Taiwan, Chao is a staunch conservative who likely will hold many of the same positions as Chavez on workplace issues, but union officials who worked with her when she led United Way said they believe they can work with her as labor secretary.

Environmental groups mobilized to oppose the nominations of Ashcroft as attorney general, Spencer Abraham as energy secretary and Gale Norton as interior secretary. Friends of the Earth noted that Abraham and Ashcroft, both senators who were defeated in re-election bids, were "environmental zeroes," who voted against every pro-environment issue the group tracked in the last Congress. Abraham voted to increase special subsidies to the oil industry, and took positions against renewable energy and fuel efficiency standards, FOE noted. Consistently siding with the oil and coal industries, Abraham voted to open up the Arctic National Wildlife refuge to oil exploration and to continue blowing apart mountains for coal in violation of the Clean Water Act.

"With the appointments of Abraham, Ashcroft and Norton," Friends of the Earth stated, "the Bush cabinet is shaping up as a jobs program for recently defeated anti-environmental zealots and recycled Reagan and Bush-era industry friendly operatives."

Many environmental groups have lined up to oppose the nomination of Gale Norton for secretary of the interior. She has opposed provisions of the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Protection Act and other laws she would oversee, if she is confirmed. Despite the Bush administration's defense that she would follow the law, even in cases where she disagreed with it, the environmentalists noted that as Colorado's attorney general from 1991 through 1998, Norton refused to defend the state in a lawsuit challenging a minority-preference rule for highway contracts, saying she could not support the rule. Greg Wetstone, the national program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, described Norton as someone who "in her official capacity has declined to endorse high-profile laws with which she disagrees." He added, "I think that makes it very hard to suggest that now that she's a nominee, she's a new person," according to the New York Times.

Wenonah Hauter of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project Hauter said Norton would turn back the clock on three decades of cleaning up the environment. "The 'free market' did not help clean up our environment in past years -- the government did," Hauter noted.

Norton was Colorado's attorney general in 1992 when the Summitville Consolidated Mining Corp. spilled cyanide and acidic water that killed a 17-mile stretch of the Alamosa River. The company declared bankruptcy, its executives fled the country, and taxpayers were left with a clean-up bill of $150 million but Hauter noted that Norton still maintains that corporations should be given the right to police themselves. Norton was a strong advocate of Colorado's "self-audit" law, which gives companies immunity from fines and lawsuits if they report and correct violations.

Norton also opposed initiatives to counter sprawl. She has been an active advocate for the "wise use" property rights creed that government should compensate developers when environmental laws and regulations limit their profits. She would protect agribusiness access to cheap federal land and water.

Since 1999 her law firm has lobbied for a range of sprawl-promoting clients.

Norton worked for James Watt at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a far-right, "wise-use" group that fights regulations in court with the sponsorship of large corporate donors such as Coors. Norton followed Watt to the Interior Department when President Reagan named him interior secretary and he promised to "mine more, drill more, cut more timber." There she fought to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Norton has been a member of several other "property rights" organizations, including the Legal Advisory Council for Defense of Property Rights, which view basic environmental protection rules as a violation of the rights of property owners. In 1998 Norton became co-chair of the Coalition of Republican Environmental Advocates, dedicated to "free-market environmentalism," with "wise use" property-rights advocates and auto, coal, mining and developer lobbyists.

Norton also did a stint lobbying on behalf of NL Industries of Houston (formerly National Lead Co.), a lead paint manufacturer responsible for 75 Superfund and other toxic-waste sites. The company faces a dozen lawsuits involving children whose parents claim they were poisoned by lead paint;

"Norton's philosophy is doubly disturbing," Hauter said. "Not only does she want to clear-cut our environmental regulations, but she believes that whatever government regulations are left standing should be pruned back to the nub."

Even the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People describing Norton as unfit for the job, noting comments Norton made in 1996 that described the cause of states' rights as having suffered a grievous blow with the defeat of the cause of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Bush defended Norton, who at least did not defend slavery in her remarks, and said criticism of these statements was a "ridiculous interpretation of what's in her heart."

Largely overlooked by progressive groups is Ann Veneman, Bush's choice for agriculture secretary. Veneman is a strong advocate of high tech and international trade in farming, which makes her popular among big agribusiness. She was deputy undersecretary for international affairs and commodity programs under Agriculture Secretary Richard Lyng in Ronald Reagan's second term. With the USDA in the administration of the elder George Bush, she served as one of the negotiators of the North American Free Trade Agreement. After Clinton's election she worked for the lobbying and law firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow and served on the board of Calgene, which researches genetically engineered foods. In 1995, Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, named Veneman to head California's Department of Food and Agriculture. Her department fought to extend the use of dangerous pesticides. She later returned to law practice in Sacramento, specializing in food, agriculture, environment, technology and trade-related issues. In her Senate hearing, she said she would push to open overseas markets to US farm products. When Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the temporary Agriculture Committee chairman, complained that four firms process 80% of the beef in the US, she said she would work with the attorney general enforce antitrust and other laws "to the maximum degree."

Spencer Abraham, the new energy secretary, was a former aide to Vice President Dan Quayle who was elected to the Senate from Michigan in 1994. He sponsored a bill in 1999 to abolish the Department of Energy, fought to limit fuel-efficiency requirements for SUVs, limit renewable energy research, abolish the federal gasoline tax and open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. He was defeated for re-election by Debbie Stabenow despite nearly $450,000 in contributions from energy and natural resources industries.

Abraham on Jan. 18 said it was premature to speculate about action to help California deal with its power crisis, but that the incoming Bush administration will "view this matter as an urgent priority." At his Senate hearing, Abraham said that any speculation of federal action could disrupt ongoing negotiations involving the state, utilities and power suppliers and be counterproductive. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, the committee's chairman, expressed disappointment at Abraham's vagueness. "You better have some answers after the 20th," said Murkowski, alluding to Bush's inauguration. But Murkowski cautioned against a bailout for California's utilities. "Before there is going to be meaningful corrections, the California consumer has to feel the hit," said Murkowski.

Bush told the Associated Press that he rejected calls by California Gov. Gray Davis (D) and the state's utilities for federal regulators to cap wholesale prices of power going into the state.

Christine Todd Whitman, proposed EPA administrator, as governor of New Jersey cut the state's environmental protection budget by 30%, relaxed enforcement of pollution regulations, promoted voluntary compliance by industry and abolished the environmental prosecutor's office in the state with the highest number of Superfund sites in the nation, Geov Parrish of AlterNet noted. She regularly fought with the EPA over lax compliance with environmental laws in her state. Whitman has said she doubts that the giant ozone hole over the North Pole or global warming are actually serious problems.

Donald Rumsfeld, new defense secretary, was ambassador to NATO in 1972 and defense secretary under Gerald Ford from 1975 to 1977. He was CEO and president of pharmaceutical company GD Searle and later General Instrument Corp. After the 1996 election, when he managed Bob Dole's presidential campaign, Rumsfeld took over Gilead Sciences, a biotechnology firm, and continued his support for right-wing military causes.

An ardent advocate of ballistic missile defense, it seems Rumsfeld never met a weapons system he didn't like or an arms control agreement he did like. He testified against the chemical weapons convention, opposed the SALT II arms agreement and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and supported the MX and B-1 and B-2 bombers. He supports massive increases in military spending targeted at new high-tech weapons systems of questionable worth and necessity. His enthusiastic support of a "Star Wars" missile defense system would be a multi-billion-dollar boon for the aerospace industry; many systems analysts say it would merely be a boondoggle, since prototypes have failed to shoot down target missiles even when the tests are rigged in their favor. His congressionally appointed commission to assess the threat of ballistic missiles to the US predictably called for another high-tech weapon system to defend US satellites from hostile nations such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq.

Tommy Thompson, health and human services secretary designee, is the Wisconsin governor known for pioneering welfare reform to free the poor from the shackles of government programs. The Madison, Wis., Capital Times, however, notes that the program has produced a higher child poverty rate -- 13.5% in 1998, as compared with 8.7% in 1979. Thompson also has talked about expanding block grants to states to increase medical coverage, but the Capital Times noted that his program to funnel state money into HMOs to provide medical coverage for the uninsured has moved Wisconsin from the lowest percentage of uninsured citizens in the nation to the 12th-lowest percentage.

Paul O'Neill, the new treasury secretary, may be the brightest hope among a crew of dim bulbs in the administration. O'Neill, former Alcoa Corp. chairman, was deputy director of Office of Management & Budget under Ford but otherwise lacks experience as a banker or Wall Street financier. Before heading Alcoa, he led International Paper. William Greider in The Nation of Jan. 29 wrote that O'Neill is an independent thinker "albeit in the moderate Republican manner" and "a refreshing shift from the free market mantra that has ruled at Treasury for the past two decades."

George Becker, president of the Steelworkers union, which represents 22,000 Alcoa workers, applauded the O'Neill selection. "Paul is a person working people and labor people can talk to. He is an industrialist who believes in the United States and has maintained a strong industrial base in the United States," Becker told Greider. "I think this is far better than having another bond trader in that job." Becker noted that O'Neill persuaded President Clinton to rescue the aluminum industry in 1993, when prices were collapsing because the former Soviet republics were flooding the world market with cheap aluminum. But when the steelworkers went to Clinton's former treasury secretary, Bob Rubin, for help, the Wall Street trader was inclined to let the marketplace decide. "Except, when financial firms got in trouble, they went to the rescue," Becker added.

Coming from manufacturing O'Neill is wary of high interest rates. He supports a balanced federal budget and is willing to buck the Republican anti-tax creed. In confirmation hearings, he appeared to play down the need for Bush's proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut. However, Bush's chief economic adviser, Larry Lindsey, is a longtime tax-cut promoter who drafted Bush's tax plan as well as his Social Security privatization plan.

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