THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:20 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Did you guys get enough stuff from Secretary Shalala and company down below?
Q No -- more questions on that. The GAO and the FDA were urging this step a few years ago. Why has it taken so long?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, both Dr. Kessler -- and I'm not as familiar with GAO. I do know that Dr. Kessler recommended a comprehensive approach to improving food health and safety inspections, I believe in 1993. And the President took that on board and began working a lot of different pieces that you've seen over the last four years. I think they concentrated initially on the seafood regs, but they've implemented various parts of that. It was a comprehensive strategy. This was one element of it. But there were other things that the government chose to address first and foremost with a somewhat greater sense of urgency. But over time I think we've worked towards reviewing and implementing those parts of those recommendations that made sense and passed muster as we went through the regulatory review process.
Q So why now, why is the moment ripened?
Q Ripened? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Ripened?
Q On the vine.
MR. MCCURRY: There have been some incidents that have required attention from public health officials. I think there has been more attention paid by the press -- I credit The New York Times with having made inquiries that brought some of these matters to light. And I think that it was really a number of these recent incidents that the President referred to today that I think concentrated attention.
Q Mike, is there any concern that our trading partners might find these too intrusive and might issue some reciprocal regulation?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we would not -- reciprocal measures would only be implemented by countries that have quality health and safety standards that approximate or exceed ours. And I don't think we would be able to fault countries that did hold us to a standard that they were setting and using in their own domestic distribution networks. But at the same time, we have international obligations, and we do respect international law when it comes to trade and commerce, and we would act fully consistent with our international obligations.
Q Do you know how large this international inspection force would be -- how many inspectors there would be going around to different countries?
MR. MCCURRY: That is the sort of thing -- if I understand Joe correctly -- the Secretary has indicated they would review during the 90-day period, that they'll be examining questions like that -- how many inspectors do you need; also issues related to cost, how much additional would it require to fund the kind of inspection program that has been discussed.
Q Does this program envision sending American inspectors to every country that we import fruits and vegetables from?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not sure if it would be every country because, if I'm not mistaken, with meat and poultry, I think they do spot checks, right now -- if I'm not mistaken. But they would have to design that program in order to meet the stipulations that the President made today in the directive.
Q So you're just not certain, is that it?
MR. MCCURRY: Not certain what would be required to fully implement. That's one of the things, I think, the President instructed the Secretary to look at today.
Q Mike, some consumer groups are concerned about he voluntary nature of the guidelines that HHS and USDA have been instructed to draft?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President's view is that by working cooperatively with the industry, with growers, with manufacturers, and looking at the processes, and using -- coming up with the guidance rather than firm regulation on how the best practices can be implemented, that we're likely to get a better result because we've got people working together to implement the kind of standards we're talking about. People can share information. It's not as much a hostile or threatening environment.
At the same time, we'd be making it abundantly clear what FDA would be looking at and looking for when they enforce the directive that the President has put forward and when they enforce regulations. I think it also creates a better environment for compliance in the long run.
Q Why was there the feeling that you needed this authority to ban imports? Have other countries not been sufficiently cooperative and there hasn't been a stick to use against them?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we don't have, with respect to fruits and vegetables, the same tools that are available for meat and poultry. That's one fact. The other is that there has been a dramatic increase in imports because of -- frankly, in some cases, just because of the change in dietary habits of Americans. Thankfully, I think we're consuming more fruits and vegetables on recommendations from doctors, and so the overall demand for fruits and vegetables has increases. And of course, also the marketing of those products, because it's not as dependent now on seasonal variations as before. Americans now want access to fruits and vegetables year-round, despite whatever season it is. So there is proportionally more imports coming in.
Q When do you the legislation is going to be ready and what's the sentiment on Capitol Hill? Have you guys gauged that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there are a number of members of Congress who have been -- who have introduced measures of their own and who have been advocating faster action on legislation. I did not hear from anyone today when we think we might have a draft legislative proposal, but, presumably, they're preparing it for introduction next year, I would imagine -- not this year.
Q How can you avoid the implication -- or do you want to avoid the implication -- that if it's foreign it's more likely to be tainted?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I wouldn't say that. I'd put it a little bit different. We have one of the best food safety and health systems in the world, so we have very high standards. And what we have found or what we suspect is that in some cases other countries may not have the same high quality standards that we have. And so we need to act in order to protect the American people and to encourage other countries to think about the quality standards that we're insisting upon for the American consumer and see if there's not a way to work cooperatively with other countries and raise those standards.
Q Is it nailed down scientifically that many of the outbreaks -- most of the outbreaks of various diseases that are food-borne in the last few years are traceable to foreign, as opposed to domestic product?
MR. MCCURRY: I was looking because they had some data, too, that there have been, obviously, some incidents in which there have been increases. There was a number in here, the 2 percent, 5 percent increase.
Q So it's not that there's --
MR. MCCURRY: John, I'll have to bump you back over to HHS, but I had seen somewhere in the stuff we had earlier on this some data about the -- there has been a measurable increase in some reported illnesses that tracks with the increase in imports that we've seen over the last decade. Essentially, that was the value of the data.
Q But my point is, really, it's less that there's a certain sense that, my God, this has been a definitive source that has to be blocked, then what you're saying is, we have domestic standards, let's make them international standards?
MR. MCCURRY: That's correct. It's not that we have suddenly found fault with the quality standards that exist elsewhere. It's just that we have determined that in order to bring -- to meet sufficiently our standard, we need to have these additional protective tools available.
Q Mike, it seems to me these countries would be the first ones to want to have the high standards so that their products will be sold. Remember the grape scare a few years ago -- in Chile that's one of the main exporters -- now the Guatemala raspberry thing. So what can be done instead of hitting them over the head quickly? What can be done to kind of work as a team? Because they're interested in exporting.
MR. MCCURRY: We have -- through all the different kind of bilateral discussions we had with countries that we trade with, when it comes to fruit and vegetables -- in fact, all agricultural products -- we do compare information on consumer demand, on the regulatory environments that exist, and there will be an active effort through our diplomacy to help educate other countries as to the quality standards that American consumers are insisting upon. And I think you're right, I think there would be a strong economic interest on the part of countries that rely on export of those kinds of products to meet those standards. They'll want to do so by force of market.
Q How do you -- with certain countries that are just developing, how do you approach them on this whole issue without insulting them?
MR. MCCURRY: You do so diplomatically. (Laughter.) We have conversations all the time among experts at the Agriculture Department, at the Commerce Department. I even recall the State Department's Bureau of Economic Affairs gets into these discussions from time to time, and we do try to raise it in a sensitive manner. But, remember, they have equally strong economic interest in marketing and selling in the United States, and they will certainly be aware of the fact that the President is insisting upon, and the American consumer is insisting upon, high standards.
Q Do you have a sense of how many countries' products or how many products will be excluded based on current standards, based on this --
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sorry. I didn't see anything on that. You might want to try -- see if Ed has got anything that they've looked at.
Q Is the answer none, or that you're not sure?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of any. But I think that's one of the things they would do in developing and implementing this regulation is to look and see what practices are that are of concern. One of -- of course, we have taken on the obligation of improving practices in our own domestic industry, too. So as they identify the right ways of doing that and work with growers and the manufacturers on how to improve those standards, what they discover and learn about processing here in the United States might be relevant in examining what's going on in other countries, too.
Q How does the President fit this into his -- sort of philosophically, into his overall trade strategy? Do you see this as calming public fears about -- as we become more global, as markets become more global --
MR. MCCURRY: I want to stress, the President does not see this as a trade issue. This is a public health issue. He has an obligation to protect the health and safety of the American people. At the same time, we have to do that in a way that's consistent with the obligations we have as an international trading partner with so many countries that do export, and we will live up to those obligations as well.
Q Mike, on another subject -- some of the Race Advisory Board panel members are saying that they don't find surprise that there's word that President Clinton possibly be taking more of a hands-on approach with the Race Advisory Board, and even possibly taking over. Is that true?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I don't know that it's -- maybe adjust the question a little bit. The President has always, as he said from the outset when he created this board, seen this as something that would work closely with him and advise him. The whole reason we did not establish any separate, independent commission was that the President wanted this board to be a creature of the White House and a creature of the President personally, because he's going to rely upon the board as he conducts the initiative and then presents the final report of the initiative next year. So he's always intended to have a hands-on role.
I think now that there's been kind of a set-up period here as the board got organized, structured the work they're going to do, and as the President made clear the other day, he now wants to begin using the resources available on the board, particularly the expertise of the board members, to begin shaping and directing the initiative a little more aggressively.
Q But is he upset with the speed that the board has implemented things or not implemented things?
MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't say upset. I think that he wants -- this is a matter of very high priority to him and he wanted to be very clear in giving directions to the board that would help them shape the work that they're going to do in the coming months.
Q What specifically is different?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that anything is specifically different. I mean, they're moving into a new phase of the work of this board now. They've figured out what it is they want to try to tackled to do and now they've got to get down to the work of going out and doing it and shaping the results that will come from the initiative itself.
Q But the way it looks, it looks like this year -- I mean, already three months have been wasted pretty much on just --not wasted, but getting the staff together and then just talking --
MR. MCCURRY: Right, three months -- one of which was August -- it was spent getting organized, getting ready to begin doing the work that lies ahead. And I think that's an appropriate amount of time to pull together, figure out the work that they want to map out to do, and then to begin to do that work. And we clearly are now entering into an accelerated phase of the work of the board and the initiative itself with the things that the President has laid out on the calendar.
Q When he had the conference on corporate responsibility he brought in employers that had successful programs in the workplace. Is there a possibility down the line that the White House might try to spotlight successful employers in diversity programs or schools in diversity and other issues of such --
MR. MCCURRY: That is, in fact, one of the things that I've heard discussed. Now, I don't know exactly when or how they might do that, but that is among the ideas that I have heard discussed -- not only diversity programs in the workplace, but also people who have found -- companies or private sector employers that have found unique ways of working in the community to get their employees more effectively involved in things that help generate dialogue between diverse, ethnic and racial groups.
Q Mike, once again, could we safely say that the President could possibly be taking over the race initiative and the board --
MR. MCCURRY: He's not taking it over because it's been his from the beginning.
Q Mike, when the President was asked about this story in the Times today about diverting funds, he said that it was his understand that it was perfectly legal. Does the White House believe and does the President believe that as long as it was legal it was right?
MR. MCCURRY: The President believes that as long as you are conducting your campaign consistent with the guidelines and directives of the Federal Election Commission, and consistent with law, and in an environment in which we were matching, in some cases, exactly what the other party was doing because it was a competitive environment in which the other party was doing the same kind of advertising, that we were operating within the structure of the laws that exist.
Now, you know and everyone knows that there are strong reasons to change the law, and the President is a proponent of changing that law. But the 1995-'96 campaign was conducted under the laws that existed then and exist now, and the point is are we going to get on and change the law.
Q Mike, yesterday you had a question about how the President may or may not be viewing the upcoming Promise Keepers meeting. Is he giving any thought to that since we last --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe his weekend schedule will allow him to participate in any direct way. It's conceivable he may have something to say generally about the spirit that brings so many people here to Washington, but I doubt that he will be participating in any active way.
Q Not about participating, but just his thinking. Has he said anything amongst the staff or just his thoughts on -- especially since they are somewhat controversial?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware that he has. But I can imagine that he might want to take an opportunity to comment on the general thrust of what brings people here to celebrate their spirituality this weekend.
Q I'd like to just come back to this for just a second. Clearly, the spirit of those laws, and particularly in accepting the federal money for his own campaign, was to put a limit on how much money was going to be spent toward a campaign. So this image of the President sitting there -- I know this story has been out there before -- but nonetheless, his defense that's it's perfectly legal -- of trying to figure out, how do we get around these laws that are loopholes at the state level --
MR. MCCURRY: David, that's not the correct environment in which we were making decisions about how to conduct the campaign. The law allows a national party to do advertising generically on behalf of its candidates. In fact, the FEC presumes that all the work done by the party is, in fact, coordinated with the candidates who are running for office. That's one of the presumptions made under law. And the party does and has, and the party not only in this recent campaign, but in most recent campaigns, has one way or another participated in generic advertising, advocacy that helps the party.
The test is only the content of what is advertised. And if the advertisement expressly advocates the election of a candidate, then it's deemed to be an expenditure. If it's not, and these ads weren't, and they were looked at carefully by counsel, they are not expenditures. So there is not -- you're not evading spending limits because they are not covered, regulated under the act. That's just the law, and the law has been cleared for a long time.
In fact, you go back -- we're talking about this today because the Times has got a story -- they got beat about 15 months ago by The Washington Post, which did the same story -- (laughter) -- the exact same story. But more importantly, the Post covered both sides of the equation, because they went and did a good job and talked to the Republicans, and they quoted the counsel of the Republican National Committee saying he had no problem with what the Democrats were doing. And that fact, by the way, I think we made clear to the Times. They just chose not to report it.
Q On fundraising -- the President speaking Saturday, a Don Beyer thing. Where is that and is that an open press event?
MR. MCCURRY: We have to check here and get the schedule. I don't have it here.
Q American Spectator has a story that says that Webb Hubbell went to Massachusetts to take part in President Clinton's birthday celebration. Do you know if that's true?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q You don't know whether it's true or --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't. It got asked in the Vineyard and --
Q But it got asked in the Vineyard, but the answer was that nobody has seen him, not as far as anybody knew. Can you flatly deny that he was on the Vineyard and saw the Clintons?
MR. MCCURRY: I have absolutely no idea, but I can try to check it out for you.
Q Can you look into this?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, I'll try to check it out.
Q Also, on another subject, the Post has a story today about President Clinton's expected nominee to be the Secretary of the Air Force, says that he was asked to stop flying F-16s because he was too stressed or something. Was the White House --
MR. MCCURRY: No, no, that is not what the article says, and that's not -- that would be unfair to the candidate for office, who we stand by firmly and who we think will make an excellent Secretary of the Air Force. We're not hiring him to be an F-16 pilot.
Q Were you aware of this, that he was --
MR. MCCURRY: You'd have to check -- I think the Pentagon has answered that question. I'm not aware that they were aware, but I don't think there is anything about that story that changes our support for the nominee.
Q And the White House wasn't aware then either, I take it.
MR. MCCURRY: I'd have to go back and check with people who did the overall review of the candidate's qualifications, but I'm not aware of anyone that believes that the information in that article lessens our support for what is a superb nomination.
Q Mike, are you going to -- when are you going to nominate --
MR. MCCURRY: He already has been --
Q No, because the last time I asked, he had not been nominated.
MR. MCCURRY: I'll have to check and see. I thought we had put out the paper on that already.
Q Mike, does the President think it's proper for the Vice President to accept pro bono legal services from James Neal?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know if the President knows anything about it. And I don't even know if that's true, so I'd have to check further.
Q Do you know if the President is accepting any pro bono services from any lawyers?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that he can. I know that there's been some of his legal expenses have been covered by insurance policies. But, in any event, his legal expenses and how they are paid for and how they have accumulated is a matter of public record, because the President chose to do that when he established his legal expense trust fund.
Q In the last two years when the President signed the military construction bill said that -- at the time he said that if he had the line item veto he would have used it to veto millions of dollars worth of unrequested projects. So is it safe to assume that when the deadline comes Monday that he will be vetoing quite a few --
MR. MCCURRY: The President I think answered that already. He's got some recommendations and he'll look at them, and if he thinks that those specific items need the excised, he'll use his authority.
Q Mike, there seems to be a growing concern once again coming back from D.C. residents about this control board. Is the President going to indeed talk to the residents of D.C., as he said before he went on vacation?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sure he will at some point, but I forgot to check to see if there's any scheduled time soon that he might do that.
Q Is the President talking to anybody today on the fast track issue, making some calls, meeting some people?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware that he was scheduled to, but I wouldn't rule out, given his interest, that he may be having some conversations today on that. I don't know of anything that was planned for that. But he has been having a lot of conversations with people on that subject and following very closely our effort to assemble support on the Hill.
Q He's got people on the Hill today?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe so, yes. I know Ambassador Barshefsky was up there yesterday meeting with, I think, Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee, and I suspect that various administration people have been up there today, too. We've been working that almost daily.
Q How long is the President going to meet with the automakers today, and is there going to be any kind of readout after?
MR. MCCURRY: He's scheduled for about 45 minutes, and it's up to the executives if they'd like to stop by the stakeout. I've heard that they probably will, so that would, I think, be a great opportunity to check with them.
Q Any readouts from the White House?
MR. MCCURRY: If there's anything that we need to contribute to whatever they say, we'll pass it on.
Q What about tomorrow?
MR. MCCURRY: Tomorrow, the President is going to have his annual physical exam at National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda. And I think they are going to leave here around 8:00 a.m., and they should finish around 3:00 p.m. We have, in the past, put out a piece of paper that gives you some of the results, but, as you know, we went through a lot of discussion last year about medical information and information that's available. So what we are going to do tomorrow is, after the President's exam is concluded and he returns here -- probably about a half an hour after he leaves, Dr. Mariano, the President's personal physician, will assemble the doctors and physicians that participated in the exam, and we'll make them available so you can ask them any questions about the results of the exam.
Q Up there or here?
MR. MCCURRY: Up there. We'll have to do it up there, because that's where the docs are, and I think we're making arrangements to get the sound piped in down here, if that's easier for you. But we're -- when the President had his knee injury earlier -- was that this year?
Q Yes. (Laughter.)
Q March 14th.
MR. MCCURRY: Seems like a long time ago. Earlier this year. When he had his exam earlier this year, we got to know the folks and the people up there, and I think Dr. Mariano's recommendation -- she said, why don't we try handling the readout on the exam that way. We'll give you the general report on the tests results that we always do, and then you can kind of ask about any of the particular results.
Q So that will be the same coverage as when the President had his injury -- will be open press, in the auditorium and all that?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that if you call out to the Medical Center, Commander Dodge -- let me give you a number -- at (301) 295-5727, can tell you more about what the facilities are. I think we've got advance people who will be up there. We'll do some kind of press advance, so we'll be able to let you know here whatever the coverage requirements are up there.
Q Given the direction a lot of these appropriations bills are going, is it likely that this fall will be the season of the line item veto on several spending bills?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think that maybe one of the reasons why there's more discussion today of line item veto is to see if we can avoid making it a season of line item veto. I think just reminding members of Congress and the conference committee of the strong positions we've taken on various appropriations bills and specific provisions in them, to alert them to the concerns that the White House has might serve in itself as a reminder that we need to work together as required by the Constitution in order to fashion spending bills that are to the President's liking.
Q Does the President believe that Congress deserves a cost of living pay increase?
MR. MCCURRY: I haven't heard him take a position on that issue. I think he'll leave it to members of Congress to settle that issue for themselves.
Q What about the judges?
MR. MCCURRY: I think we have -- I think the President has publicly indicated his support for increases for judges. He did so -- I'll check on that -- my recollection is that at the time the ABA met in San Francisco we may have said something on that.
Q Does that mean then that he intends to sign Treasury-Postal?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there's a lot in Treasury-Postal besides the legislative -- or is that in the Treasury-Postal or legislative appropriations? There would be a lot in that bill, so we'll look at the bill and render an opinion. I don't even know what the status of our thinking is on that bill.
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that there's been a veto threat, but there's been nothing on that particular subject.
MR. MCCURRY: I'd have to go back and check, but I know that we've raised lots of concerns about that bill generally, and we'd have to look at it.
Q Does the President think he deserves a cost of living pay increase?
MR. MCCURRY: He's satisfied with the salary that he already has, which is set by separate statute.
Q On the line item veto, is there any reason for him to leave unrequested items in there? I mean, why would he allow any item that the Pentagon, for instance, didn't ask for and Congress -- Congress had put into the bill?
MR. MCCURRY: Because all legislation, one way or another, is a process that involves some give and take, and it depends on what the President -- the President has some specific requirements under the act that he would have to look at if he were to exercise the line item veto. Under the act, he can only cancel tax and spending if he determines that the cancellation will reduce the federal budget deficit, not impair any essential government function, and not harm the national interest. And the President has the capacity, as President, to defer to Congress if he wishes on a matter that Congress might believe is in the national interest for some reason -- even if it was not something that was initially requested by the President.
Q Thank you -- again. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Are you trying to get rid of me today? What's wrong?
Q If you want to stay --
MR. MCCURRY: Not particularly.
All right. See you tomorrow.
END 1:49 P.M. EDT