THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JAKE SIEWERT The James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:12 P.M. EST
MR. SIEWERT: Hello. We are ready for questions. Let's get it over with.
Q No announcements, Jake?
MR. SIEWERT: No announcements. There is a congressional meeting, which I think I spoke to most of you about this morning, that we were able to schedule over the weekend; and that will take place at 5:30 p.m. here today, no coverage planned. I expect it to be a working meeting that will focus on trying to get some of the unfinished business done that we have before us, as Congress returns to town today.
Q No pool spray at the top?
MR. SIEWERT: No.
Q Is that a reviewable or re-countable decision?
MR. SIEWERT: No.
Q Where is it taking place?
MR. SIEWERT: We want to spend -- we only have an hour or so, expect that meeting to happen in the Oval; and we wanted to use that time, the hour to focus on the work that remains to be done here, particularly education budget, which is in limbo and has affected the lives of a million Americans who are trying to make planning decisions about college, about hiring teachers for new school districts. We would like to get that work wrapped up. Obviously, we'll be discussing that with the bipartisan leadership that's scheduled to be down here at 5:30 p.m.
Q Since it's in the Oval, as opposed to the Cabinet Room, is it a small number of attendees who will be here?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes. Expect the Majority/Minority Leader of the Senate to be in, as well as the Speaker and the Minority Leader. I don't think anyone else is planning on being here, but I'll double check on that.
Q You didn't say the Majority Leader -- or maybe I didn't hear you. Lott will be here or not?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, the Majority and Minority Leader of the Senate, along with the Speaker and the Minority Leader of the House.
Q But not Dick Armey?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't believe so, but I'll double check on that.
Q Will you be discussing CRs and --
MR. SIEWERT: Obviously, I expect the CR to come up, because we have one that expires, I believe, tomorrow. But the main focus will be on how to get the budget work done, how to wrap up some of the unfinished business and how to move forward on an education budget that provides a significant increase for America's students and universities and colleges, as well as, obviously, a bill -- the bill that funds a lot of the research that goes on at universities, on health care and NIH.
Q Any reaction to the Supreme Court decision, just handed in?
MR. SIEWERT: No. I saw that news came out just before I walked out here. I expect that we'll leave the analysis of that to the Gore and Bush legal teams, who are well capable of doing that. Obviously, the Court said there were some ambiguities and referred the case back to the Supreme Court so that there would be some further discussions down in Florida.
Q Can I ask you a question on this coral reef announcement today?
MR. SIEWERT: Certainly.
Q Part of it says it prohibits oil, gas and mineral production. Is that exploration, as well, or is exploration involved in all this?
MR. SIEWERT: I can check on that specifically. I expect it would be hard to do production --
Q Just wanted to make sure why it would just say production.
MR. SIEWERT: I'll check. I don't know.
Q Jake, does the administration dispute Dick Cheney's assertion yesterday that we may be on the front edge of a recession?
MR. SIEWERT: We understand that Mr. Cheney has a lot of hands-on experience in big-time economic downturns -- (laughter) -- but I don't think that makes him qualified to assess the current state of our economy. This is not an issue that is subject to the usual kind of spin that we hear out of presidential campaigns. We have facts, and they're pretty clear.
The administration that Mr. Cheney was part of had an economic growth record of 1.7 percent annual GDP growth -- 1.7 percent. This administration has more than doubled that, and growth has averaged 4 percent throughout this administration. That's just a fact. This administration was left by the administration that Dick Cheney was a part of with a budget deficit of $290 billion, and one that was headed higher. Interest costs were consuming more and more of the federal balance sheet, the federal dollar, the taxpayer dollar.
In this administration we've eliminated that deficit. We have record surpluses, the largest surpluses in history, and we're on a course to paying down the debt and lowering the portion of the federal budget that goes to the interest -- to interest payments. So that frees up money for all kinds of initiatives, leaving the new administration with a lot of flexibility about what decisions they make and how they can best allocate the resources that taxpayers send to Washington, leaving room, in fact, for a tax cut. And we've proposed one that we believe is a reasonable one.
But also, the facts are clear on a whole host of other fronts. Productivity under the Clinton administration consistently out-paced the productivity growth rate during the Reagan-Bush-Cheney years. And the unemployment rate when we took office was well over 7 percent. It's now 3.9 percent, in October of 2000, and has really been on a path -- a much lower path throughout this administration.
And I would point out that of all the private sector economists that looked at this issue, people that are making big decisions for corporations, relying on the blue chip forecasts, not a single one, in their survey that was released November 10th, predicted anything less than 2.5 percent growth over the next year, and unemployment that was below 5 percent.
So those are the facts. That's what the private sector, the smart people, the smart money are saying about the future, and I don't think any spin coming out of that political campaign should be seen as much more than just spin. As I said, Mr. Cheney was part of the Whip Inflation Now team, and he was part of a Bush administration that had a pretty anemic growth record. But that doesn't mean that he's qualified to talk about the state of the economy today.
Q Ouch. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: So the short answer is, no. (Laughter.)
Q -- people worked on that answer for you? (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: I did it all myself. You know, I used to work at the NEC, which is a creation of the Clinton administration we hope they keep around -- it seems to have played a valuable role.
Q Taking into account what the private economists said on November 10th, is there anything that the administration sees potentially troubling in some of the softer than expected holiday shopping in profit problems that major corporations are having, both in the e-commerce and some of the bricks and mortar types, and some of the polling data that suggests consumer confidence, for the first time in a good long while, is taking a slight dip down? Are there any troubling signs?
MR. SIEWERT: Consumer confidence is still at records that are extremely high. Over the last four quarters the economy has grown at over 5 percent, which is a substantially higher rate than has been typical over the past couple decades; and over the last two years, the economy has grown at about 4.7 percent; the blue chip, as I said, is projecting 2.5 percent growth in -- not a single one is projecting unemployment over 4.6 percent.
Those are all very strong numbers that any administration would be proud of. It may be best put by Bruce Steinberg, said yesterday, a Merrill Lynch economist said, the question is whether the economy is going from great to merely good or maybe great to okay. That seems to be a fairly more succinct and credible explanation of the overall shape of the economy today than one put out by political folks.
Q So what is the President doing now? Is he keeping track of the unfolding legal developments --
MR. SIEWERT: He gets regular updates from his staff. I expect he's probably heard of the latest decision. But he's in phone and office time right now, and some meetings this afternoon.
Q What about commenting on the actual Supreme Court decision? Is there any concern that the President has that the more legal proceedings that this election requires, that time is running out -- December 12th gets closer -- and the Vice President's options might decline as the calendar goes ahead?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know if anything -- the Supreme Court said there was some ambiguity and they thought they should give the Florida Supreme Court a chance to make further rulings. So, obviously, the court wrangling will continue for a little while, and we are not in the best position to judge how to bring this all to a close or when to bring it all to a close. That's for others to sort out.
Q Is the President regularly speaking to the Vice President and Senator Lieberman about these developments? How often are they in contact?
MR. SIEWERT: I think he's talked to the Vice President -- I don't know about Senator Lieberman, but he's spoken to the Vice President about once a week since the election. So I don't know if you'd characterize that as regular, or not, but the last discussion I'm aware that they had was late last week when they met in the Oval Office. And I don't -- I'll check and see if they spoke over the weekend at all.
Q In Mexico, there is a new real opportunity for peace between -- the government and the Zapatistas. This administration was very concerned in the past about the peace talks and the process for the -- to the peace. Do you have any comments on that?
MR. SIEWERT: We regard that as an internal matter for Mexico to decide. But we welcome any efforts that are aimed at bringing about a peaceful negotiated solution to what's been a longstanding problem in Mexico.
Q Has the President talked to the new President of Mexico?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't believe he has. I know Secretary of State Albright was there, along with the President's Deputy Chief of Staff, and I know they had some good discussions and I expect at some point will follow up, but I don't know at what level.
MR. CROWLEY: The President-elect was here in October, but they haven't chatted since he took office.
Q Jake, is it still your expectation that Congress can wrap up its work in the next two weeks?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I don't know that we've set an exact time line. I know they've indicated they'd like to do this as quickly as possible. And if anything, the discussion this afternoon is aimed at trying to give them some idea of how we can move quickly to resolve some of the unfinished business, particularly the education budget. And we'll be giving them some idea of how we think we could best move forward to achieve some easy wins for both the Republican Congress and for the American people.
Q Jake, back on the economy for a second. Is it the White House position that a throttling back from, let's say, a great economy to a good or okay economy is just fine, and there's nothing else the administration would do --
MR. SIEWERT: Oh, no. And we're always striving for greatness here. But I think that was a private sector person who was just looking at the reality of what's happening in the economy today and providing a more measured view than you may hear from some political commentators and some of the pundits over the weekend. The reality is that the economy is in very strong shape.
A new administration, whoever heads up that administration, will have a great number of options that weren't available to this administration when it took office, because unemployment is very low, the budget is balanced, there is a much stronger picture, a much stronger economy to deal with. And as a result, a new administration will have lots of different options about how to proceed and how to keep the economy growing.
We obviously think that it's very important, and critical, to keep paying down the debt, because that frees up private sector capital for investment. And that's why we've put the economy on a path to pay off the debt over the next 12 years. We think that's a critical piece of the puzzle. In the end though, there's very strong fundamentals in the economy, and the new administration will have a lot of chances to work with the strong economy and build on the success we've had.
Q On Chile, Jake, The President announced a start of a negotiation with -- next Wednesday, this Wednesday, this coming Wednesday. Brazil has reacted to the accord with Chile, rejecting the addition of Chile to Mercosur. Do you have any reaction to that?
MR. SIEWERT: I hadn't seen that. We obviously think that a bilateral negotiation between the United States and Chile could bring great benefits to both countries. Chile has an open economy, one that's one of the -- that has one of the strongest reform -- economic reform packages in South America. And we think that bilateral negotiations, if concluded, could bring a great deal of benefit, both to Chilean -- the Chilean people and to the American people.
Q Still Chile, this weekend was an action against General Pinochet. Do you have comments on that, or do you consider that's an internal matter of Chile?
MR. SIEWERT: I'll check on that and get back to you.
Q Just to make sure I understand something. The ergonomics issue, now that rule is published, is that issue off the table completely, in terms of --
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. I guess, in some sense, Congress has to make some decisions about that. We didn't think that the rule that -- the legislation that they put forward was wise, and we've moved forward, since the Congress ended, with a final rule. I'm not sure -- Congress could still legislate on that matter, it may be more difficult. But we think that the rule that's in place actually benefits businesses, benefits workers and we think it's a sensible rule, and ought to stay in place. That's our position.
Mr. Crowley has helpfully provided me with some guidance on Mr. Pinochet. This is a legal matter to be resolved within Chile. The Chilean justice system has made important advances in its treatment of cases of human rights abuses committed during the military government. Chile is addressing the Pinochet issue within its national context and in a manner that promotes justice and national reconciliation.
Q Can I go back to the ergonomics rule? So even though you think it's a sensible ruling and you like it -- obviously, you published it -- is it possible, still, would you still throw this into the mix if Congress comes up with some type of legislation --
MR. SIEWERT: We'll see what we have to say about that. I don't know what their appetite is for revisiting that rule. We'll have a discussion today and we'll see what they think is on the table.
Our position is pretty clear: we think the rule saves businesses money over the long run, it saves workers a great deal of personal pain. And so we think that rule is a sensible one and we'll wait and hear what the Republicans have to say about ergonomics before we make any decisions.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 12:28 P.M. EST