THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY VICE PRESIDENT GORE AND EPA ADMINISTRATOR CAROL BROWNER
The Briefing Room
3:08 P.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to make a statement. You will receive a written statement from the President on the VA-HUD appropriations bill. I'm going to then turn it over to Administrator Browner.
Today, the clear and concerted effort by the Republican leadership to roll back public health and environmental protection was stopped on one important vote. This may be looked back upon as a turning point. I know the Republican leadership was shocked when they lost this vote; they didn't expect to lose it. But all of the 17 riders that had been attached to the bill at the specific request of polluters and other special interests were taken out in a close vote that the Republican leadership lost.
President Clinton had highlighted this problem, and the American people made their opinion known on it. And enough Republican members of Congress split away from the leadership to join with the overwhelming majority of Democrats to take these particular provisions out. It's important to note, however, that even without the special riders that were voted down today, this particular appropriations bill was already so bad for the environment that even this vote doesn't come close to rehabilitating it to the point where it could be signed.
And of course, the budget before the House represents an attack on public health and environmental protections that American families have long depended on. It's an attack that is totally without precedent in the modern era. The budget that is before the House would not allow us to sustain the level of public health and environmental protection that the American people are accustomed to, protections that have been achieved through a quarter century of bipartisan progress.
If this bill ever became law, our drinking water would be dirtier, would make more people sick, and would kill more people. Our air would be dirtier, make more people sick, and kill more people. Polluters would love it because they would be given the green light to dump huge increases in the volume of pollution into our rivers, our lakes, and through smokestacks into the air. Our food, the water we fish, the water we swim in, would not be as safe.
The budget would cut enforcement of environmental laws by 50 percent. This bill tells polluters that they can not only keep right on polluting, they can increase the amount of pollution. It unfairly penalizes thousands of businesses that have played by the rules and want to do it the right way, in a responsible way, because they now are at the mercy of competitors who are willing to cut corners and dump pollution freely into the air and water.
This budget would eliminate all of the federal dollars provided by the Clinton administration to help communities control contamination in their drinking water. That's $725 million. This budget would cut funding of hazardous waste site cleanup by one-third, $560 million. One hundred and twenty cleanups of Superfund sites now underway in communities around this country would be cancelled. They would come to a stop. The cleanup crews would be removed. The work would be stopped. The sites would be abandoned. This would remove hope from those communities that are waiting for toxic waste cleanups that are intended to safeguard their health and revitalize their local economies.
The administration's plan, let me emphasize, would lead to a balanced budget over a ten-year period as opposed to their seven-year period, but our plan would do it without these changes in public health and environmental protections. We would not sacrifice them.
Now, I think that the vote today on this one portion of the bill is actually a sign of things to come because people around the country, in both political parties, are becoming outraged by the most anti-environmental Congress in the history of the nation. They're trying to repeal Earth Day. They're trying to go back to the times that existed before there ever was an Earth Day in the first place.
They are in the hip pocket of the lobbyists for the polluters. They've invited the lobbyists for the biggest polluters in the country to come right into the halls of Congress and write the legislation. Since the members of Congress don't always understand the tricky, legal language that the lobbyists are putting in these bills when it comes time for the briefings to explain what the words mean, they actually have to turn over the briefing to the lobbyists for the polluters.
Today's vote on this amendment signals that enough of those in the Republican Party who have been going along with this ruse are getting nervous about it -- that they're beginning to hear what their constituents are saying. And what their constituents are saying is, what in the world are you doing? The election last November was not about allowing polluters to increase the poison they dump into our water and our air.
Now, just to conclude before turning it over to Administrator Browner, the President will, of course, veto this bill if it comes to his desk in anything remotely resembling the form that it is in right now before the House of Representatives. He has said before that he will not jeopardize the public health and the health of American families or the health of our environment.
Now, let me emphasize again, that even though this vote was a turning point, the bill as it remains even after this amendment just does terrible things to our ability to protect the environment, and it is unacceptable. And to explain a little bit more about why that's the case, I want to ask Administrator Browner to speak.
Q Do you have hopes that this turning point means that you will get -- on other issues you will be able to get that kind of Republican support?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, I think this is a sign of things to come.
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: Just very briefly to add on what the Vice President has said, in addition to an across the board cut of 34 percent -- the largest of any major federal agency or department -- this bill will make less safe the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat. There is included still in the bill a 50 percent cut in enforcement dollars.
Last year, just for an example, EPA filed 525 criminal cases, including the case against individuals who illegally dumped hazardous waste in Tampa, Florida, where children died. Our ability to take those kind of criminal actions is severely limited under this kind of reduction. This eliminates all federal dollars -- dollars secured by this administration for local governments to make much needed improvements in their drinking water systems.
Last year, 30 million Americans got their drinking water, their tap water from a system that had at least one, if not more, public health violations in the prior year. The President fought for and received funding never before available -- federal dollars never before available -- for local communities to protect their drinking water. This would eliminate those funds.
It eliminates Superfund activities, toxic waste clean-ups, as the Vice President said. It slashes funds to monitor the pollution levels in the rivers and lakes that specifically become our tap water. And it eliminates funding for our community right to know program for collection and dissemination of toxic use information. We think people have the right to know what is happening in their neighborhood, in their community.
This would deny us the ability to collect and share with the public information about toxic uses in their community by the industrial facility. We have seen, since January, a concerted and orchestrated effort to roll back 25 years of health and environmental protections. This bill, despite the amendment, the victor in terms of removing the special interests' special provisions, continues to threaten the health and safety of the American people.
Q Would you say this is the clearest sign of this move in the House of Representatives to have legislation written by lobbyists?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: The appropriations bill is certainly the clearest evidence to date of the Republican leadership's effort to undermine environmental protections. But if you go back to the Contract with America, the Clean Water Bill, the Dole regulatory reform bill, which he has had to pull back, what you see in each instance is a concerted effort to undermine the laws, the tools, that we use to protect the air, water, and food for the American people.
Q Specifically on lobbyists, does this point to that more specifically than anything else?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: Quite frankly, we see it in each and every instance. And what we have seen thus far is if they can't get it one place because we've been able to expose the fact that the special interests are getting special exemptions at the expense of the American people, they turn around and put it somewhere else.
A number of the riders that were struck today have shown up in other bills, written perhaps in a slightly different way. We've been able, occasionally, to get them out. Today we got 17 out. But we have every reason to believe they will continue to show up. This is a orchestrated effort to make sure that certain interests, special interests, certain polluters don't have to comply with the law. And if they can't get a special exemption, then they'll make sure that we don't have the resources to do the job, to take the enforcement action when they fail to comply with the law.
Q Will this vote actually change people's minds in Congress, or was this like a first test of something, so that you had no history to look back to?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: We have seen a small but growing number of members recognize that these proposals are out of touch with the American public, and moving over to the side of common sense, legitimate reform of the system, as opposed to the sledgehammer approach in these bills. But the fundamental problems have not been resolved.
But I mean, obviously, as the Vice President said, we're encouraged by the fact that we did see the largest number of Republicans yet to break with their leadership to vote against the special interests and for the American people.
Q What evidence do you have that the Republicans changed their votes because of constituent pressure, as the Vice President hinted?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: What we've seen, and what I've personally seen as I've traveled across the country is a growing realization on the part of the American people just how dramatic these provisions are.
I think, quite frankly, as a country, we hold such -- we give such high value and we believe it is in part a moral commitment to protect our natural resources, to protect the health of our children, that it has been almost difficult for people to see what is happening. When told these things, they almost don't believe it. But if you connect the dots, if you take all of the actions of the last seven months, there can be no mistake. This is about lowering health and environmental standards. This is about letting the polluters off the hook.
Q Is that what you think was behind the change in votes by the Republican members?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: I do. I think it's the public's growing recognition of just how bad these proposals are.
Q Is this the bill that has the exemption for San Diego's water supply?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: No, that's in a separate place. That's in a couple places, actually. That's in the clean water bill. I mean, that's another example of it showing up all over the place, and that's an example of where this administration solved the problem -- a problem that was begun under the Reagan-Bush years. We came in and said, we need to fix this. The President signed a law. I literally have people working around the clock, and the problem is solved.
And yet a debate took place and a bill was passed that would make sure in the future San Diego didn't have to comply with environmental laws. Not necessary. We solved the legitimate problem there, and now they're going one step further to create an unfair situation for the people of San Diego.
Q Is the Republican majority helping the business interests to this extent as a direct result of specific campaign contributions by specific interests to legislators involved, or will you grant that they have kind of an ideological reason or bias for sincerely believing that what they are doing is in the best interest of the American people?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: I will tell you that we have seen sentences in bills, and we can tell you which law firm downtown wrote that sentence because they have argued it in a case against us, because they have suggested it to us, and we have rejected it as being unfair to the health of the American people. I think there are a number of special interests who have put a significant amount of pressure -- and successfully so -- on the Republican leadership to create special exemptions, special loopholes.
Q Has this been in the form of campaign contributions that you can identify?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: I don't know. That's, obviously, something someone else would have to tell you. But I mean, literally we can tell you who's writing the language. There's sort of no secret to it.
The final thing that we see is an increasing interest in the American public shouldering these costs in this appropriations bill, in the Superfund cleanup monies which are cut by a third. Rather than fund the remaining amount out of a tax as we have done for 15 years on the oil and chemical companies, a tax that is being collected today and put into a trust fund specifically to clean up toxic waste sites, they are taking the remaining funds -- small, albeit -- but nevertheless, from the general treasury, not from the tax specifically collected from the oil and chemical companies to clean up these sites. They are asking the American people to pay to clean up pollution they did not cause. And we believe that the polluters should pay.
Q Do you think that any of these riders is going to show up on the Senate side? And if it did, how would it fair?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: This is -- I mean, it's hard to predict what's going to happen on the Senate side. I will tell you that during the debate on the Dole regulatory reform bill, we saw some of these riders proposed over there -- they've been filed over there -- I think clear evidence of this orchestrated effort. If we can't get it here, let's get it over there. And so it could well be that some of these could show up in another form and in a more difficult to understand form. But no less negative in terms of their impact, no less damaging in terms of their impact.
Q What do you think the chances are of your being able to either prevent some of these riders from being reinserted in the bill before the final vote or to increase the budget appropriation, given that a lot of the moderate Republicans who voted for the amendment say they are willing to vote for the appropriations?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: Well, as the Vice President said, the President has the perfect plan. We can balance the budget and allow EPA the resources necessary to do the job on behalf of the American people. Under the President's budget, EPA remains relatively flat. It gives us both the tools and the dollars necessary to ensure that the health of our children, the health of our air, our water, our food is protected. There is a way to do this and allow us to do the job that the American people expect.
Thank you very much.
Q Do you have any indication of achieving that in the House?
ADMINISTRATOR BROWNER: I think, quite frankly, given some of the underlying decisions made in the House, their ability at this point in time to fix the funding is somewhat limited. The Senate is starting this discussion in a different place because of how their allocation system was set up.
Q Mike, I just wanted to ask this one thing, if you can confirm that Abner Mikva has written a letter to the University of California saying that the federal dollars will keep flowing regardless of their decision to end --
MR. MCCURRY: I believe that Judge Mikva, on behalf of the President, has responded to an inquiry that came from Lieutenant Governor Gray Davis asking about the inquiries that the Justice Department has made about the recent action of the U.C. system Board of Regents. Judge Mikva has written back to the Lieutenant Governor. I believe the Lieutenant Governor has made that letter available publicly.
But he indicated that, first, the President, as Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said over the weekend, strongly disagrees with the action that has been taken by the U.C. system. But he also said that as part of the routine and regular examination of this issue, that the Justice Department would now make the situation is basically this -- that when you've got a decision taken by a federal contractor or federal grant recipient -- in this case, the UC system -- the Justice Department would, as a matter of its regular routine practice, examine what the implications are for existing contracts.
And Judge Mikva said that review is underway now, but he pledged that in the context of that review, if there was anything that indicated that any federal money was in jeopardy, that the White House would make every effort to work with the state of California to avoid cutting off any federal monies. And Judge Mikva indicated that he had been instructed by the Chief of Staff to pursue that so if there's any federal funding that is in jeopardy as a result of this decision, we would first and foremost work with the state of California to make sure that there's no penalty or no punitive action; we'd try to work out something that would be satisfactory.
Judge Mikva assured the Lieutenant Governor the President's not interested in taking any punitive action against the University of California for this ill-considered system -- the UC System in the University of California system is one of the crown jewels in the higher education system of this nation, not to mention, California. And the President well understands its important to the state of California and, in fact, to the nation, and frankly, is troubled that people would turn this recent decision and the UC system itself into a political football for their own political gain.
Q Did Leon Panetta go too far then in threatening to --
MR. MCCURRY: No. All he did was indicated what is exactly true; that it would be a routine and regular practice of the justice department, working with the education department to examine any decisions that were made like this.
Q Does it really -- the Justice Department routinely oversees state education department rulings when they pertain to race?
MR. MCCURRY: No, when they pertain to existing federal contract or federal grants. They have to see whether there's compliance by the grant recipient or the recipient of the federal funding in question.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 3:30 P.M. EDT