The GAO demands Cheney energy documents; Bush steps in to stop strike by flight attendants.

Published June 26, 2001 8:02PM (EDT)

Rant: We don't know Dick

Vice President Dick Cheney has gotten pretty far by simply seeming adult compared to the chronically impish boy president. He's been the blandly reassuring face of experience in the new administration, and his testy ticker and lesbian daughter have only helped to humanize him.

But Cheney's comparative free ride from the media may come to a screeching halt thanks to his refusal to turn over the list of people who met with his super-secret Energy Task Force, which is widely reported to include oil, nuclear and gas executives. Maybe he fears the list, which we already know is light on environmentalists, will simply fortify the idea that this administration is too industry-friendly. Maybe he thinks it's none of our business.

Cheney is right to be worried about growing concerns by the public, tracked by opinion polls, that the administration is too close to fatcats. And pro-business regulatory roll-backs, together with the investment hijinks of senior advisor Karl Rove and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, haven't helped reassure people.

But does Cheney think forcing the General Accounting Office to file a civil action against the White House, which it says it will do if Cheney continues to stonewall, will be some kind of PR coup?

This week's controversy over disclosing the Energy Task Force meeting list comes on the heels of a disturbing report by the Washington Post that shows how Cheney hasn't told the full truth about whether the oil-field supply company he ran, Halliburton, did any business with Iraq despite a U.S. embargo. He denied it during the campaign, but the Post cites "oil industry executives and confidential United Nations records" which say that "Halliburton held stakes in two firms that signed contracts to sell more than $73 million in oil production equipment and spare parts to Iraq while Cheney was chairman and chief executive officer of the Dallas-based company."

Cheney's advisor, Mary Matalin, told the Post that "In a joint venture, he would not have reviewed all their existing contracts," and that "the nature of those joint ventures was that they had a separate governing structure, so he had no control over them."

But not having control over them is not a strong defense of his denial that they ever existed. Especially when Cheney -- who was Secretary of Defense during the Gulf War, and helped devise the anti-Iraq embargo --promised to maintain a hard line against Iraq when he went to Halliburton in 1995.

Whether Cheney is the real commander in chief or not, he surely is the most important partner to a president since a first-term Hillary Clinton. And he ought to know, even better than the first lady did, that the only response that works, in the face of an increasingly skeptical public, is transparency. If he doesn't, he should learn from the travails of Hillary's closed-door health care sessions, not to mention Clinton White House stonewalling on Travelgate and Whitewater. His image could turn from kindly elder statesman to the No. 1 threat to democracy faster than you can say Ira Magaziner.

--Kerry Lauerman.

Daily line

"It is a constitutional issue -- the right to petition. People should have the right and freedom to come to the government without having to release their names to the press."
-- Juleanna Glover Weiss, Vice President Cheney's spokeswoman, saying that her boss shouldn't have to release the names of people who spoke to his energy task force

Bush buzz

The stakes have been raised in the tug of war between the vice president and congressional Democrats over Cheney's refusal to disclose the names of private-sector participants in the White House's energy task force meetings. The General Accounting Office, the agency that conducts investigations for Congress, has demanded the information three times since the beginning of May at the request of Democrats in Congress. The vice president's staff has responded by declaring that the GAO has no authority to demand task force documents. Now the GAO has signaled that it will continue to pursue the matter; officials at the agency have not ruled out taking the vice president to court should he persist in keeping the information secret.

The Democrats' demand for that information was prompted by concerns that representatives of the power industry, many of whom were big donors to President Bush, are exercising undue influence on White House energy policy. On Monday, those concerned about limiting the role of money in politics scored a big victory in the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that limiting the amount of money political parties can give to individual candidates is constitutional, not a violation of free speech as the Republican plaintiff had charged.

The decision left campaign finance reform champions beaming. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., authors of the most recent reform legislation, say that the Supreme Court decision bodes well for their attempts to bar unregulated donations to parties in future campaigns. Opponents of the effort to eliminate so-called soft money insist that it would restrict Americans' rights to donate as much as they like to election campaigns, which the Supreme Court in the past has equated with restrictions on free speech.

Meanwhile, McCain has his hands full dealing with Republican challenges to his version of the patients' bill of rights. Foes of the plan are busy trying to cobble together alternatives to the McCain bill, which was coauthored by Democrats Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Republican opponents are concentrating on limiting patients' rights to sue in state court in disputes over denials of care, particularly the right to bring action against employers that provide insurance and become involved in treatment decisions. They are insisting on a blanket exemption of employers from suits, but McCain has said that the demand is a nonstarter. Bush has vowed to veto the Democratic version of the bill if it isn't heavily revised, and Democrats assert that the president is protecting his backers in the healthcare industry at the expense of ordinary citizens.

Another move by the Bush administration has Democrats charging that the president prizes the health of his donors' over the health of ordinary people. U.S. trade officials have signed up to fight on behalf of the American tobacco industry in a trade dispute with the government of South Korea. The Bush team says that the federal intervention is not a significant departure from the policies of the Clinton White House, but opponents see it as more evidence that the president is in the pocket of tobacco interests.

Meanwhile, flight attendants for American Airlines aren't thrilled that Bush is stepping into their conflict too. Bush declared on Monday evening that the government would intervene in a contract deadlock between the airline and its flight attendants, a move that puts any plans for a strike on hold for at least 60 days.

Bush's interference is being sought by members of both political parties concerned about China's bid to host the Olympics. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., introduced resolutions calling for the administration to reverse its pledge to remain neutral in the matter, and openly oppose China's campaign to host the Olympic Games in 2008. Even senators most worried about China's human rights record are not expected to press the issue.

The president himself is applying new pressure regarding his plan to facilitate federal funding options for faith-based charities, enlisting American mayors to help steer their congressional representatives to support the idea. Bush's proposal has floundered in the House, where opposing sides are wrangling over whether the potential good that religious charities could do with government money would be offset by the potential damage to the wall between church and state. While Bush was glad to get the endorsement of civil rights icon Rosa Parks for the plan, he has failed to form a cohesive coalition in support of it, and even some church leaders say that federal funding would compromise religious missions.

And don't miss the president dodging protesters and well-wishers alike at the Conference of Mayors in Detroit. Police and Secret Service agents cleared the area around the conference center, so that the dozens who had gathered to see Bush arrive and depart got only a distant glimpse of his motorcade.

Tuesday schedule: Bush meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House in the morning, and later meets with Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa.

-- Alicia Montgomery

This day in Bush history

June 26, 1995: Gov. George W. Bush welcomed Greg Laughlin, a Texas state representative, to the Republican Party after Laughlin left the Democratic Party. The defection was one of many Democrat-to-Republican switches in Texas during Bush's first year as governor. Despite the anger of Democratic Party officials, Bush denied that he was attempting to make Texas a one-party state. "It's good to have a good, viable two-party system," he said. "We just want one party to be stronger than the other."

Bush league: Pork fest for Florida recounters

While many Republicans demand that Democrats get over the Florida recount fight, apparently the GOP isn't done celebrating its victory. Kurt Markva, chief of staff for Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., will be throwing a "LONG-OVERDUE THANK YOU CELEBRATION FOR THE REPUBLICANS' FLORIDA RE-COUNTERS." The event, to be held Saturday at Markva's home, will feature roasted pig, volleyball and the country music stylings of the Wil Gravatt Band, all to thank Markva's friends and associates who went down to Florida for the recount battle last winter.

While the invitation has a strong partisan tone -- guests are described as "know[ing] what 'is' is" -- the host committee reflects business interests as much as political ones. Listed among the event's hosts is the lobbying firm Albertine Enterprises, whose president, James Albertine, was elected to lead the American League of Lobbyists last December. Though the celebration thanks Republican recounters, the host committee is not orthodox GOP. It includes consultant Thomas Cator, who gave $1,000 to the campaign of Michael Ross, an Arkansas Democrat who won a congressional seat in the last election.

Some staff members of the National Association of Manufacturers, a group that frequently lobbies on workplace issues dealt with by the House Small Business Committee, which Manzullo chairs, also made the guest list. While Markva himself was unavailable for comment, Manzullo press secretary Rich Carter dismissed concerns about possible conflicts of interest, claiming the event was a party, not a fundraiser, and was Markva's personal affair regardless. The congressman and other members of the host committee, Carter said, are just chipping in to cover the costs of the event. Any money left over will go to charity, and while one hasn't been picked out just yet, it could be, Carter says, the American Cancer Society.

Carter didn't know the exact cost of the event, but was comfortable offering an estimate of the price of pork. "That's $5 a pound for about 200 pounds of pig," he said. As further proof that the event was on the up and up, Carter extended the invitation to members of Salon.

-- A.M.

Poll watch: Americans gain confidence in the presidency

After getting bad public opinion news last week, Bush can take some solace in the results of a recent Gallup survey. Though it did not specifically ask about Bush, the poll does show that a significant percentage of the public has become more confident in the presidency since last year. According to the survey, taken from June 8 to 10, 48 percent of Americans surveyed express "a great deal or quite a lot" of confidence in the presidency, compared with 42 percent who did so in June 2000. Of the three branches of the federal government, the Supreme Court inspired the most confidence, and Congress earned the least, 26 percent.

But confidence in the presidency was strongly shaped by partisanship. For example, the number of Republicans who expressed "a great deal or quite a lot" of confidence leapt 42 points in the last year from 31 to 73 percent, while only 27 percent of Democrats are now confident in the institution, down from 54 percent. The election seemed to have less of an effect on the Supreme Court, with Republican confidence jumping from 48 to 60 percent over the last year, while Democratic confidence slipped slightly from 48 to 44 percent. Though Congress is firmly in the basement, it's the only branch that picked up points from both sides. Thirty percent of GOP members are now confident in the federal legislature, compared to 25 percent last year. Democrats were less impressed, but their confidence ratings for Congress climbed from 24 to 26 percent.

This poll had a 3-point margin of error.

Bush job approval

  • 53 percent, CBS News/New York Times, June 14 to 18
    Down from 57 percent, May 10 to 12

  • 50 percent, Pew Center, June 13 to 17
    Down from 53 percent, May 15 to 20

  • 55 percent, Gallup, June 11 to 17
    Steady at 55 percent, June 8 to 10

  • 59 percent, Fox News, June 6 to 7
    Steady at 59 percent, May 9 to 10

  • 55 percent, ABC News/Washington Post, May 31 to June 3
    Down from 63 percent, April 19 to 22

  • 52 percent, CNN/Time, May 23 to 24
    Down from 55 percent, March 21 to 22

  • 50 percent, Newsweek, May 10 to 11
    Down from 57 percent, May 3 to 4

    -- A.M.

    Burning Bush

    Links to the Web's best sites for hardcore Bush watchers.

    Send questions, comments and tips to bushed@salon.com.

    Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert, Karen Croft, Gary Kamiya, Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Scott Rosenberg, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York

    Take a look at the previous edition of Bushed!

  • By Salon Staff

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