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All the President's Lies Bush's rhetoric bears no resemblence to his policies. How does he get away with it?
By Drake Bennett and Heidi Pauken Issue Date: 5.1.03
Other presidents have had problems with truth-telling. Lyndon Johnson was said, politely, to have suffered a "credibility gap" when it came to Vietnam. Richard Nixon, during Watergate, was reduced to protesting, "I am not a crook." Bill Clinton was relentlessly accused by both adversaries and allies of reversing solemn commitments, not to mention his sexual dissembling. But George W. Bush is in a class by himself when it comes to prevarication. It is no exaggeration to say that lying has become Bush's signature as president. The pattern is now well established. Soothing rhetoric -- about compassionate conservatism, about how much money the "average" American worker will get through the White House tax program, about prescription-drug benefits -- is simply at odds with what Bush's policies actually do. Last month Bush promised to enhance Medicaid; his actual policy would effectively end it as a federal entitlement program.
More distressing even than the president's lies, though, is the public's apparent passivity. Bush just seems to get away with it. The post-September 11 effect and the Iraq war distract attention, but there's more to it. Are we finally paying the price for three decades of steadily eroding democracy? Is Bush benefiting from the echo chamber of a right-wing press that repeats the White House line until it starts sounding like the truth? Or does the complicity of the press help to lull the public and reinforce the president's lies?
One thing is clear: If a Democrat, say, Bill Clinton, engaged in Bush-scale dishonesty, the press would be all over him. In the spirit of rekindling public outrage, here are just some of the president's lies.
The Education President
"Every single child in America must be educated, I mean every child. ... There's nothing more prejudiced than not educating a child." -- George W. Bush, presidential debate versus Vice President Al Gore, Oct. 11, 2000 Along with tax cuts, education was Bush's top priority when he entered the White House. He charmed lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in an effort to get his bill passed, a bill that combined greater accountability and testing with increased funding. Then, in what has become a trademark, he pulled the plug on the funding. Members of Congress had good reason to believe Bush was being sincere. As governor of Texas, he had raised state education spending by 55 percent, tightened curriculum requirements and pushed for more accountability from the schools themselves. Even state test scores shot up -- although that was likely the result of the tendency to "teach to the test" rather than an actual increase in learning or knowledge. (The increase wasn't reflected in national standardized test scores.) Still, Bush was able to persuade the top two education Democrats in Congress, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), to work with him on the No Child Left Behind Act. And when the lawmakers objected to voucher provisions, Bush dropped the vouchers -- and toned down the testing measures to win Congress' approval.
But in his 2003 budget, Bush proposed funding levels far below what the legislation called for, requesting only $22.1 billion of the $29.2 billion that Congress authorized. For the largest program, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides support to students in impoverished school districts, Bush asked for $11.35 billion out of the $18.5 billion authorized. His 2004 budget was more than $6 billion short of what Congress authorized. Furious, Kennedy called Bush's proposal a "tin cup budget" that "may provide the resources to test our children, but not enough to teach them."
The result: States already strapped by record deficits are being held responsible for the extra testing and administration mandated by law -- but aren't getting nearly enough money to pay for it. So the number of public schools likely to be labeled "failing" by the law is estimated to be as high as 85 percent. Failing triggers sanctions, from technical assistance to requiring public-school choice to "reconstitution" -- that is, firing the entire school's staff and hiring a new one. And Bush isn't doing much to help. The New Hampshire School Administrators Association calculated that Bush's plan imposed at least $575 per student in new obligations. His budget, however, provides just $77 per student. It's a revolution in education policy, all right, but No Child Left Behind was simply a lie.
"Our goal is a system in which all Americans have got a good insurance policy, in which all Americans can choose their own doctor, in which seniors and low-income citizens receive the help they need. ... Our Medicare system is a binding commitment of a caring society. We must renew that commitment by providing the seniors of today and tomorrow with preventive care and the new medicines that are transforming health care in our country." -- George W. Bush, Medicare address, March 4, 2003 The man simply has no shame. His program does none of this. What it does, simply, is to make dramatic cuts in the benefits for both the poor and the elderly. Under the current Medicaid program, the federal government matches, on a sliding scale, the money that states put up. The state is required to cover some beneficiaries and services, although others are "optional." But "optional" services include many essential and life-saving treatments. And "optional" beneficiaries are seldom able to pay for private insurance. Bush's plan, in effect, would turn Medicaid into a block grant, capping the federal contribution. Because states are already hard-pressed to keep up with Medicaid costs, services to the poor will simply dwindle. As Leighton Ku, a health-policy analyst at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, notes, if under the current plan "you wanted to save that much money, you would have to specify which cuts to make, how to make the cuts. But it's much easier to cut the block grant because it's invisible; someone else has to make the decisions."
Bush claims to bring flexibility to Medicaid, and, in a sense, he's right. Under his plan states would have, as Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson put it, "carte blanche" in dealing with optional benefits and optional recipients. In other words, a mother making more than $9,000 a year would be fair game, as would an 8-year-old child who lives in a family with an income just above the poverty line, or a senior citizen or disabled person living on $7,200 a year.
And there's a whiff of coercion to the way in which the states are offered the option of switching to the Medicaid block grant. The states, which have already started cutting Medicaid on their own, are literally begging for federal fiscal assistance, and none is forthcoming. But if they consent to Bush's Medicaid plan, they'll get not only $3 billion in new federal money next year (a loan they would have to repay) but the ability to save money by trimming their Medicaid rolls. In other words, the president is making them an offer they can't refuse.
Bush relentlessly invokes a rhetoric of choice on Medicare. But the Republican proposal pushes seniors toward heavily managed private plans that offer partial drug benefits but limit choice of treatment and doctor. If you stayed with traditional Medicare (which does offer free choice of doctor and hospital), you'd only get minimal prescription-drug benefits. The plan would spend some $400 billion over 10 years, a sum that provides coverage worth 40 percent less than that enjoyed by members of Congress under the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, which Bush repeatedly invokes as a model.
And while the plan allows House Republicans to avoid making politically unpopular cuts to Medicare, it requires Congress to cut $169 billion over 10 years from programs they oversee. So in the end, Medicare cuts may end up paying for prescription-drug benefits.
Despite rhetoric promising to increase other health spending, a close reading of the House Republican budget proposal shows $2.4 billion in cuts for programs -- such as the National Institutes of Health, Community Health Centers and the Ryan White AIDS program -- that Bush has pledged to support. Even though Bush vowed in his State of the Union address to spend $15 billion over the next five years to provide AIDS relief to Africa, much of that money won't be available until at least 2006. [See Garance Franke-Ruta, "The Fakeout," TAP, April 2003.]
A Paler Shade of Green
"Clear Skies legislation, when passed by Congress, will significantly reduce smog and mercury emissions, as well as stop acid rain. It will put more money directly into programs to reduce pollution, so as to meet firm national air-quality goals. ..." -- George W. Bush, Earth Day speech, April 22, 2002 Actually, the Clear Skies law doesn't do any of this. The act, in fact, delays required emission cuts by as much as 10 years, usurps the states' power to address interstate pollution problems and allows outdated industrial facilities to skirt costly pollution-control upgrades. The Environmental Protection Agency ensured that few people would notice this last regulation by announcing the change on the Friday before Thanksgiving and publishing it in the Federal Register on New Year's Eve. Still, nine northeastern states immediately filed suit against the administration; their case is pending. Meanwhile, Bush's commitment to clean water is just as murky. Despite saying last October that he wanted to "renew our commitment" to building on the Clean Water Act, he's instead decided to "update" it by removing protections for "isolated" waters and weakening sewage-overflow rules, which could significantly increase the potential for waterborne illnesses. It's hardly surprising to learn that big business is behind a lot of these changes. The Washington Post recounted a meeting between Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) Administrator John Graham and industry lobbyists during which the latter were encouraged to identify particularly onerous rules -- and ultimately created a regulatory "hit list." "There is a stealth campaign that's going on behind closed doors to twist the anti-regulatory process into a pretzel so that the public will be unaware that they are bottling up these protections," says Wesley Warren, the National Resources Defense Council's senior fellow for environmental economics. A good chunk of the 57-item list fell under the EPA's jurisdiction. One by one these rules have been submitted to OIRA under the Paperwork Reduction Act for cost-benefit analysis, a regulatory accounting technique that often ends up justifying watered-down rules.
Even as EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman announced that global warming is a "real phenomenon," Bush refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. His decision weakened the treaty's effectiveness because the United States produces 25 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions.
The former Texas oilman, who made one environmental promise after another on the campaign trail, has slashed the EPA's budget by half a billion dollars over two years, cut 100 employees and rolled back regulations on a near-weekly basis. "There has never been anything to compare this to," says Greg Wetstone, director of advocacy at the National Resources Defense Council. "Even in the days of Reagan, there was never an administration so willfully and almost obsessively concerned with finding ways to really undermine the environmental infrastructure."
Whitman, the administration's supposed environmental champion, is also contributing to the weakening of protections. Although she said the administration was working to put in place a standard to "dramatically reduce" levels of arsenic in drinking water, she later tried to lower the existing regulation, saying that even the 10-part-per-billion federal benchmark was too tough. The EPA rolled back the standard until a report warning of health risks (and public outcry) forced the agency to reinstate the old limit.
Here's another classic Bush whopper. In his State of the Union address, the president proposed $1.2 billion in research funding to develop hydrogen-powered cars, in part to make the United States less reliant on foreign oil. What he didn't say is that the technology and infrastructure needed to mass produce such cars won't be available until at least 2020. If Bush truly cared about immediate relief, he might start by acknowledging existing hybrid vehicles or supporting more stringent Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards for light trucks and SUVs. Neither is likely to be part of a Republican energy package this year.
Democrats in the Senate dealt Bush a rare blow when they voted down his proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in March, although House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) plans to bring the issue back. Still, many lawmakers, especially in the House, feel they can do little except try to fend off the administration's attacks on the environment. "There is an absolute hostility toward any positive strengthening of environmental law," says Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. "It is a wholesale turning over to corporate America the governing of this country."
Hypocrisy has been defined as the tribute that vice pays to virtue. George W. Bush lied about all these policies because the programs he pretends to favor are far more popular than the ones he puts into effect. But unless the voters and the press start paying attention, all the president's lies will have little political consequence -- except to certify that we have become something less than a democracy.