Ways & Means: Recycler in Chief George W. Bush reuses his worst ideas By Carl Pope
Last November, U.S. voters sent as strong a message as they could short of insurrection--a message heard, apparently, by everyone except President George W. Bush. Because since then, on issues from the Iraq War to the environment, Bush's policies seem to have been drafted in some distant corner of the universe, where radio waves carrying news of November's upset have not yet arrived.
In the Bush administration's 2008 budget, for example, Natural Resources and Environment undersecretary Mark Rey once again proposed to sell off national forests to finance public schools in rural counties. (Counties with large amounts of public land often lack the tax base that more-developed areas use to fund their schools. For a list of public lands potentially eligible for sale, visit www.fs.fed.us/land/staff/spd.html.)
A similar proposal last year went down in flames in the face of strong opposition from hunting, fishing, and conservation groups--and that was in a Congress under the firm control of the president's own party.
"It won't have any more support this time than last time," predicted Senate Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "You're not going to find any takers on the idea," agreed Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho). Republican senator Gordon Smith (Ore.) even threatened to shut down the entire federal government if the budget failed to include the money needed to pay for rural schools without selling off public lands.
Clearly, Rey and the White House knew this idea was going nowhere. It was simply a way of ducking the question of how to fund rural education. But it's not the only nonstarter proposal floating around. Despite three rejections by Congress in the past six years, the budget included drilling revenues from Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--a prospect so remote at this point that even Interior secretary Dirk Kempthorne declined to promote it at a February news conference officially presenting the new budget.
A few weeks later, Bush and Kempthorne visited Shenandoah National Park, where they announced a substantial increase in funding for national parks--a move for which Kempthorne deserves much credit. Too bad he then had to compare Bush to Teddy Roosevelt, the model of Republican environmentalism. It's hard to imagine Roosevelt increasing subsidies for commercial timber sales on public lands, making double-digit cuts to recreation and wildlife programs, or underfunding the National Wildlife Refuge System (which Roosevelt started at Pelican Island, Florida, in 1903).
Moves like this are the reason Bush's support among hunters and anglers is growing thinner. (See "Et Tu, NRA?") The reddest parts of the Rocky Mountain West are in virtual rebellion over the loss of recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat on public lands because of oil and gas drilling. So what was the administration's first initiative of the year? The Forest Service announced new measures to make it speedier for oil- and gas-drilling permits to be granted and harder for the public to prevent projects from further damaging wildlife habitat. "T.R.?" a New York Times editorial asked of Bush. "He's no T.R."
Why do Bush and his administration continue to make environmental proposals that not only have no chance of success but also further erode his already diminished political base? One possibility is ideological fixation: Those calling the shots in the administration may be so committed to their destructive policies that not even political self-interest interferes.
Another possibility is that self-interest is very much a factor, and the Bush bureaucrats are setting themselves up for lucrative jobs with the oil, mining, or timber industries when they cash in. The more goodies they shovel out the door (or at least try to shovel out the door), the fatter the future paycheck. Finally, it could be that the White House is so bogged down with failure in Iraq that it doesn't have the energy to come up with new ideas.
Happily, the answers can be left to future historians to puzzle out, because the seismic political shift of 2006 has made the question moot. Congress now wields Roosevelt's big stick and seems determined to use it. Perhaps it will even establish a special refuge for lame ducks.