The Bush Payback

The Bush Administration's energy proposal is the latest in a series of initiatives that give "transparency" in government a whole new meaning. Campaign contributors are cashing in on their investments, and every week is "payback" week.

It's taken quite a stretch to use electricity shortages as an excuse for drilling the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, but George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are making a heroic effort. So what if only 3 percent or our electricity comes from oil? The more relevant number here is 78 percent: that's how much of the oil and gas industry's record $32.6 million contribution went to Republicans in the last election cycle.

The Administration's arguments about energy security don't hold up much better. Drilling the Wildlife Refuge full of oil wells would not have much impact on oil or gasoline prices, since oil prices are determined in a world market.

The supply impact would be minimal and no different from oil obtained anywhere else in the world; and OPEC could always cut back production to compensate for it. Of course, if we were really concerned about long-term energy security, the best strategy would be to leave the oil in the ground, in case imports are not so readily available some day.

But this is not energy planning -- if it were, we'd see more than the token one-tenth of one percent of our energy dollars allocated to developing renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Or conservation: five of the nation's top laboratories have estimated that we can reduce the growth in electricity demand by 20 to 47 percent by increasing energy efficiency.

These scientists didn't get any face time with Dick Cheney when the secretive Energy Development Task Force -- dubbed the "Alaska jihad" by its leaders -- put together the Administration's proposal. But Kenneth Lay, chairman of Enron Corp. got a half hour with the Vice President to lobby for what he wanted.

The proposal sees deregulation -- the cause of California's soaring electricity prices -- as the way of the future. And why not? Consumers got fleeced for billions of dollars, and a good chunk of it went to Enron -- an excellent return on their $1.7 million contribution to Republicans in the last election, as well as their long-term investments in Mr. Bush's political career.

There will be no price caps to protect consumers from the effects of deregulation, even though the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has the power to do that, and even to force a refunding of money already ripped off.

There will be no closing of the loophole that allows SUV's and pick-up trucks to be exempt from Federal mileage standards -- just ask White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, former chief lobbyist for the auto industry.

The Administration's energy policy seems to be based on the same strategy as its economic policy. Faced with a real short-term problem, do nothing to resolve it, but use it to sell long-term changes that reward your friends. The Bush tax cut will do little or nothing to counter the current economic slowdown, instead rewriting the tax code to give hundreds of billions of dollars to the richest people in America over the next decade.

Then there was the bankruptcy bill: a timely gift to credit card companies at the expense of millions of people (median income: $22,000) who are unable to make ends meet -- mostly due to loss of a job, poor health, or divorce. Kick 'em while they're down. The credit card giant MBNA was the largest corporate contributor to the Bush campaign.

Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical companies have been using their clout to block a universal Medicare prescription drug benefit. And the Wall Street firms that would rake in billions from privatizing Social Security got one of the most stacked presidential commissions in history -- unanimously pro-privatization -- to fix a problem that doesn't even exist.

That's how our free market election system works: you vote with your dollars. President Bush has made it easier than ever to "follow the money," but the media has been mostly kind to him. Alternating between the confused look of a student who knows he is faking it, and that impish gleam, he has charmed the press and rides high in the polls.

And he does deliver some good jokes. "You can fool some of the people all of the time -- Mr. Bush quipped at a Washington dinner -- "and those are the ones you want to concentrate on."

Too bad he wasn't kidding.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research ( in Washington, DC.

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