THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY THE VICE PRESIDENT AND SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR, BRUCE BABBITT
The Briefing Room
2:43 P.M. EST
THE VICE PRESIDENT: During our visit to California yesterday, the President and I had a lengthy conversation about the Interior appropriations bill. I would like to announce today that if Congress sends the President the Fiscal 1996 interior appropriations bill as approved by the Conference Committee, he will veto it.
This bill takes dead aim on this nation's most cherished natural resources, and will benefit special interests at the great expense of taxpayers. It also unfairly and inappropriately targets programs for Native Americans.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who is joining me here, and will respond to your questions, Budget Director Alice Rivlin, and other senior administration officials worked tirelessly to turn this bill around as it moved through the legislative process, but to no avail.
Since the bill does not include the administration-proposed moratorium on hard rock mining patents, it gives away billions of dollars in federally-owned land and mineral deposits to a single industry. At a time of budget stringency, when some leaders in the Congress are incredibly and cavalierly threatening to put the United States into default for the first time in more than two centuries of our existence, they are simultaneously proposing to drain the Treasury of billions of dollars and give it, virtually free, to special interest groups.
The bill would allow logging to occur in some of the most environmentally sensitive areas of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. This bill also includes a sneak attack on the newest addition to the national park system -- California's incomparable Mojave National Preserve -- by transferring funding and responsibility for the preserve from the National Park Service to the Bureau of Land Management, and completely undermining implementation of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act.
In addition, the bill would cut 47 percent from the President's request for energy conservation and efficiency programs that would save more oil than could be obtained by drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Congress also is proposing to block an important project that will allow a sustainable flow of timber from the interior Columbia River Basin and end the harmful, counterproductive, species-by-species crisis management that has, in the past, characterized the federal government's land use decisions in this region.
This shortsighted action would threaten the protection of salmon and other endangered species and would guarantee more endless court battles and gridlock for years to come. If they succeeded in passing this provision, it would be a great day for the lawyers and the lobbyists, but a terrible day for everyone else.
Finally, as I mentioned at the very outset, this bill would cut 18 percent or $348 million from the President's request, and $160 million from the 1995 level, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose programs serve Indian children, the elderly and tribal governments, reversing the administration's progress toward tribal self-determination and self-governance, and impeding our capacity to fulfill our responsibilities to educate Indian children.
These are only a few of the most egregious examples of the damage that this bill would do to our natural resources and to Native Americans. For these reasons and others, Congress should begin anew and send the President a bill that truly serves the American people, not this bill -- which, I repeat, would be vetoed if it is sent to the President.
Now, I'm going to invite your questions and ask Secretary Babbitt to respond. If you have one or two before I depart, I'd be happy to take them.
Q Two -- one on this, and as long as you have, to grab you on another. First, on this, why are you making this particular threat? It's the first time we've had the President or Vice President attack a specific bill as it's come out of conference. Is this one particularly worse than any of the others?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, the President is in California, with a schedule that does not allow him to make the statement personally. It is especially egregious, and it will be vetoed, and we all feel very strongly about it. It's an unprecedented attack on our natural resources, on the environment, and on Native Americans in our land. And that's the reason.
Q The second -- Speaker Gingrich said today that he would be willing to consider a short-term extension of the debt of a couple of days to a week. Is that good enough for the administration?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we haven't seen a proposal. I think that the Speaker's cavalier threat to put the United States of America in default, for the first time in the entire history of our nation, is evidence of a radical approach that reflects an extremist set of priorities.
He is saying, in effect, that it is far more important to this Congress to give a very large tax cut to the wealthiest in our land than it is to avoid the catastrophic consequences of declaring the United States of America in default and condemning all future taxpayers to shoulder the burden of higher interest rates for years and decades to come in service of a radical agenda.
It is not in keeping with the bipartisan tradition of responsible governance that has served our country well for more than two centuries.
Q Do you believe that the short-term extension will keep the financial markets from the chaos that you've predicted?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, again, we haven't seen such a proposal. And I do not think that the United States is going to go into default. And I think that the markets are well convinced that the way we have behaved as a nation for more than two centuries is a better prediction of how we're going to deal with this situation than radical right-wing rhetoric in the effort to try to get a tax cut for the very wealthy.
We want a tax cut for those middle-income families who need it, but one of reasonable size. We want to balance the budget, but in the right way -- to preserve our investments in education and continue protecting the environment. You don't have to threaten default. You don't have to adopt an extremist agenda in order to do what the American people want to see done this year. They didn't vote for a default in the elections last fall. They didn't vote for an extremist right-wing agenda.
Let me turn it over --
Q Do you think the Congress -- the Democrats in Congress are getting your message, as well as the American people, because they seem to be complaining that they don't know what you people believe? -- Moynihan on welfare and some others.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: You mean before you write your story, Helen?
Q No, I mean right now.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I'm sure you'll clear that up, to the extent that there's any --
Q No, they are saying -- we don't know what they think.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: About --
Q Well, on welfare -- Moynihan, he says, doesn't know where you stand and --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: There was very strong bipartisan support for a version of that bill. It's very different from what the House has passed, and the President has made his views known very clearly on both bills. The House bill is unacceptable.
Do we have some questions on the Interior bill?
Q Is the Republican Congress reading the public wrong on environmental issues, because what they're arguing is that there's a lot of unrest out there about property rights -- about environmental laws that go too far, that are too restrictive, that are economically too troublesome? Are they reading it wrong?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh, yes, I think they're reading it very wrongly. And I'm going to ask Secretary Babbitt, when I conclude my answer to this, I'm going to ask him to also address the same question. We have eliminated 16,000 pages of regulations. We have reinvented another 31,000 pages of regulations. We have announced, in the area of environmental regulation, a series of sweeping reforms that preserve the protection of our environment, while getting rid of unnecessary red tape and unnecessary expense involved in complying with our environmental laws.
The American people feel very strongly, regardless of which political party they happen to be in, that clean air and clean water and a safe environment represents an extremely high priority for our nation, and they support it. And it's always been a bipartisan issue.
Are there some reforms needed? Of course,and we are bringing them about. But to throw out the baby with the bath water, and to throw out the protections of the environment, when what is needed is simple reform of the way the protections are carried out, is not only a mistake of substance, but a very serious misreading of public opinion. I think that they're shortly going to have a rendezvous with re reality where these environmental extremist, right-wing proposals are concerned.
And Secretary Babbitt has been fighting this fight very vigorously, and I'm going to invite him to continue that response.
SECRETARY BABBITT: I'd be happy to continue with a brief response to that question. Look, what's happening is the money changers are swarming through the temples of democracy.
The bottom line is that this legislation is being written by industry lobbyists line by line, word by word. And why is that happening? It's because the lobbyists are taking the position we won this election fair and square.
Now, what about the American people? Well, the bottom line is simply this: The environment was not an issue in the 1994 election. It wasn't an issue. No candidate in his or her right mind would have been out there saying elect me, and I'm going to start shutting down units of the national park system. Elect me, and I'm going to go out to California and appropriate one dollar for the largest and newest and most vibrant unit in the national park system. I mean, this is -- let's recognize it. This isn't the outflow of the '94 election; this is a sordid reflection of the worst in American politics, pure and simple.
I think you know where I stand on that one. Okay, anybody else?
Q -- the impact on Native American tribal governments, children, the elderly that was mentioned earlier?
SECRETARY BABBITT: The Native American issues are especially distressing, because over the last 10 years, this Congress, on a bipartisan basis, has come together on the notion of what we must do to discharge out obligation to Native Americans is begin the process moving toward self-governance -- that is, of taking these programs and moving them out to empower tribal governments in a way analogous to what state governments do, to take charge of their own sovereign destiny.
And now just as this concept is agreed upon, the Congress turns around and says, we're going to strip the funding away from that effort. The funding cuts are all directed at tribal governments. They are selectively targeted at the concept of undoing this consensus about how it is we are going to support and empower Native Americans to determine their own destiny.
Now, lest you think that that's accidental or somehow just happened, they've now piled on top of it an extraordinary new tax. This Congress has the audacity in the reconciliation bill to tax Indian gamings. They are in effect saying, our idea of equity and justice in the history of this country is now to levy a tax on Indian tribes to finance tax cuts for the wealthiest portion of this country. And if that isn't a display of cynicism, I don't know where you're going to find it. At the very time that the tribal governments find a source of revenue that they can use for health, welfare and education, this Congress turns around and takes it away from them.
Q Well, you know the law much better than I do, but aren't -- aren't Indian tribes sovereign governments under themselves? Is it possible for the federal government to tax another sovereign government of that sort -- I mean, with whom they have existing treaties? Or is there something that I'm just missing?
SECRETARY BABBITT: I'm certain there will be a legal challenge to this concept. I have no doubt about that. But, you know, the important thing is the spirit in which the United States Congress sort of takes after Indian tribes at the first sign of economic revival and not only cuts their budget but says we're going to pile on and tax away your gains in order to finance tax cuts for other sectors of American society.
Q Why did the administration decide not to declare ANWR a national monument just to raise its profile?
SECRETARY BABBITT: Well, my understanding is the President has not said I will not declare ANWR a national monument. I think it's more accurate to say the President has not made that decision. Now, what he has said is he will veto a reconciliation bill with the current proposals to open the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. It is an extraordinarily, audacious display of lobbyists' muscle.
The bottom line is, there's no national emergency. The prices of oil are at an all-time low, reflecting the fact that there's plenty of oil in the market. The oil companies have all the rest of Alaska. They've got the other 85 percent of the Alaska shoreline. And they haven't even bothered to get off their duff and go out and explore the 85 percent that's already opened to them. And one must really ask, what is the spirit of the times in which oil companies -- in a world flooded with oil, oil prices going down, with no current intentions to really do any major exploration, announcing day after day that they don't have the money to do anything more, with 85 percent of the Arctic shore open -- and they want this. It's absolutely incomprehensible.
Q What do you think -- you know, for all of these measures that have come before Congress, not just Interior, the line is, the word is that they want it for the tax cut for the wealthiest one percent. Why is it? I mean, are they are wealthy in Congress? Who are these people? What is the pressure -- is it --
SECRETARY BABBITT: Helen, all I've got to say is, I've only been around this town for two years. You've been here for how many?
Q Long. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY BABBITT: I don't have any wisdom of and beyond what you have on that subject.
Q Why do they -- don't they think about the rest of the country or --
SECRETARY BABBITT: Well, I've got to tell you, I told my people this morning -- I said, you know, I'm new in this town. I spent most of my career in Arizona dealing with a legislature out there which has not incorrectly been characterized as enthralled with special interests. The Arizona legislature -- I mean, this is the home of timber and mining lobbyists, big-time, who run this little legislature like the hand maiden of the special interests. I expected something different when I came to Washington. I got to tell you what I've seen this year gives a good name to the Arizona legislature.
Q But you don't know what motivates them strictly?
SECRETARY BABBITT: Well, what motivates them -- yes, it's the money changers in the temple. You know that. It's the money changers in the temple. The lobbyists are up there. They're in the corridors of power saying, look, we won this election. And there are a fair number in Congress who are saying, wait a minute, the environment wasn't the issue. We don't have a mandate to do this. And the lobbyists are saying it's our money that put you in power, and it's our turn, and here's our menu. It's just that simple.
Okay, I'm getting excited here. Somebody tell me when it's time to quit.
Q On the gaming tax issue, would the Justice Department enter into a legal challenge if the gaming tax were to become law?
SECRETARY BABBITT: I can't answer that, because much as I would like to be Attorney General, I'm not.
Q We'll remember that. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY BABBITT: I just don't -- it's a complex issue. But again, don't lose sight of the fact that they're proposing. The issue is really, I think, one of motive and intention and justice and equity.
Q Even if the President vetoes this bill, Mr. Secretary, how optimistic are you that that veto is going to mean change that brings this bill into shape better suited to the administration?
SECRETARY BABBITT: Well, I honestly am fairly optimistic about that. I think the American people are going to decide these issues. And we've seen some movement. We saw some movement on the offshore oil moratorium issue. We've seen some movement on funding for national parks, although the park closure commission and the assault on the Mojave are still going on.
My feeling is this has gone on for exactly the reasons we talked about. It hasn't been an issue. And I think the American people kind of stepped back during the course of the -- of the early congressional debate and said, that's just rhetoric. You know, they don't have any mandate to do that. We certainly didn't buy into it as a result of any kind of debate. And we haven't heard any debate in the authorizing committees. And there's a sense that, you know, this wasn't real.
And the sense that this wasn't going to happen, I think, was kind of perpetuated by the way in which this has been done in the back alleys of Congress, staying away from authorizing committees from process, where you have hearings, debate, feedback, hearings tiering up through -- the legislative process has been grievously abused. They never did this kind of stuff in the Arizona legislature, where they had put a bill up in an authorizing committee -- the park closure commission, I think, is the best example -- and start a public debate and have a wave of opposition resulting in the defeat of their own legislation. Then they head out into the back alley and say, well, we'll just slip that into a reconciliation bill, precisely because it doesn't require any debate.
It is a gross perversion of the legislative process. I am shocked, shocked, that such things go on in Washington. Thank you.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 3:05 P.M. EST