Bush and Cheney's Last Shot

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, October 31, 2008; 12:12 PM

Did we really expect President Bush and Vice President Cheney to go quietly?

R. Jeffrey Smith writes: "The White House is working to enact a wide array of federal regulations, many of which would weaken government rules aimed at protecting consumers and the environment, before President Bush leaves office in January.

"The new rules would be among the most controversial deregulatory steps of the Bush era and could be difficult for his successor to undo. Some would ease or lift constraints on private industry, including power plants, mines and farms.

"Those and other regulations would help clear obstacles to some commercial ocean-fishing activities, ease controls on emissions of pollutants that contribute to global warming, relax drinking-water standards and lift a key restriction on mountaintop coal mining.

"Once such rules take effect, they typically can be undone only through a laborious new regulatory proceeding, including lengthy periods of public comment, drafting and mandated reanalysis. . . .

"The burst of activity has made this a busy period for lobbyists who fear that industry views will hold less sway after the elections. The doors at the New Executive Office Building have been whirling with corporate officials and advisers pleading for relief or, in many cases, for hastened decision making."

Emma Schwartz reports for ABC News: "Every administration tries to pass last minute rules in hopes of leaving a lasting mark. But experts say the Bush administration is expected to approve a greater number more quickly than previous administrations -- something they said could lead to bad and costly policy.

"'The administration wants to leave a legacy,' said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, which has been critical of these proposals. 'But across the board it means less protection for the public.' . . .

"It wasn't supposed to be this way. In May, Josh Bolten, then-head of the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees regulatory approval, issued a memo barring new proposals after June. It also required that all new regulations be completed by Nov. 1.

"That hasn't been the case. Many proposed regulations have yet to be finalized and new ones have already come out since the June deadline.

"A spokesperson for OMB said in an email response that the Bolten memo 'wasn't intended to wholesale shut down work on important regulatory matters after November 1st, but to emphasize due diligence.'

"She added: 'Ensuring the integrity of the process is important to the Administration.'"

Among the examples cited by Smith is a proposed rule put forward by the National Marine Fisheries Service that would lift a requirement that environmental impact statements be prepared for certain fisheries-management decisions and would give review authority to regional councils dominated by commercial and recreational fishing interests.

Watchdogs are up in arms. The Pew Environment Group says the rule "threatens to completely undermine application of the law that protects ocean ecosystems." OMB Watch reports: "In addition to the hundreds of thousands of public comments opposing the proposed rule, 80 members of Congress have also expressed their opposition, including a letter joined by 72 members of the House of Representatives. The letter states that the proposed rule fails to meet congressional intent made clear during the reauthorization of the [fisheries act]. Hundreds of scientists and environmental organizations have also signed on to oppose the rule."

Another example is something Siobhan Hughes wrote about in the Wall Street Journal on Monday: "The Bush administration is moving to adopt rules that would loosen pollution controls on power plants, by judging the plants on their hourly rate of emissions rather than their total annual output, people familiar with the matter said. . . .

"As long as a power plant's hourly emissions stay at or below the plant's historical maximum, the plant would be treated as if it were running more cleanly, even if its total annual emissions increased as plant operators stepped up operations."

From the Archives

I've been calling attention to yet more examples of the Bush administration's midnight rule-making for the past several months. For instance, back in May, Juliet Eilperin wrote in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration is on the verge of implementing new air quality rules that will make it easier to build power plants near national parks and wilderness areas."

Carol D. Leonnig wrote in The Washington Post in July: "Political appointees at the Department of Labor are moving with unusual speed to push through in the final months of the Bush administration a rule making it tougher to regulate workers' on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins."

Alicia Mundy wrote in the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago: "Bush administration officials, in their last weeks in office, are pushing to rewrite a wide array of federal rules with changes or additions that could block product-safety lawsuits by consumers and states."

And of course there's the push for a last-minute regulatory overhaul that would effectively gut the Endangered Species Act.

Juliet Eilperin wrote in The Washington Post in August that the new rules would "allow federal agencies to decide whether protected species would be imperiled by agency projects, eliminating the independent scientific reviews that have been required for more than three decades."

Dina Cappiello wrote for the Associated Press just 10 days ago that Interior Department officials were rushing so hard to ease the endangered species rules before Bush leaves office that they were "attempting to review 200,000 comments from the public in just 32 hours."

And on Monday, Cappiello reported that -- surprise! -- the administration had concluded "that changes it wants to make to endangered species rules before President Bush leaves office will have no significant environmental consequences."

And yet another one to add to the list. In today's Post, Juliet Eilperin writes: "The federal Bureau of Land Management is reviving plans to sell oil and gas leases in pristine wilderness areas in eastern Utah that have long been protected from development, according to a notice posted this week on the agency's Web site.

"The proposed sale, which includes famous areas in the Nine Mile Canyon region, would take place Dec. 19, a month before President Bush leaves office."

Tip of the Iceberg?

Keep in mind that rule-making is by definition a public process. So what else is going on, beneath the surface? I raised a slew of questions in that vein for NiemanWatchdog.org back in June. Among them:

* Are major contracts being let out that have long-term ramifications? And are any of those related to outsourcing?

* Are appointees in federal agencies trying to cover their tracks? Are documents being properly retained?

* Are Bush political appointees working on last-minute reorganizations within the federal government?

* Are Bush loyalists burrowing into the civil service? Will political appointees engage in a last-minute flurry of hiring and promoting Bush loyalists into key civil service jobs? Will political appointees try to make the jump into the civil service?

Bush in the Rearview Mirror

Sheldon Alberts writes for the Canwest News Service that Republican presidential candidate John McCain's camp responded furiously to a new ad from the Barack Obama campaign linking McCain to Bush.

"'I would say that the most amazingly bankrupt line of argument that I've ever seen in this campaign has been the constant and heavily financed effort on the part of the Obama campaign to make George Bush John McCain's running mate,' Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, said in a conference call with reporters.

"'To me it's outrageous. Everybody who knows John McCain, who has spent any amount of time following his life and times, knows that he has been probably one of the biggest flies in the ointment for the Bush administration on Capitol Hill when it comes to putting his country first.'"

Lauren Vernon writes for The Hill: "John McCain's presidential campaign on Thursday said the Arizona senator would win the race for the White House if Democratic rival Barack Obama keeps seeking to link the GOP nominee to President Bush.

"McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said the attempt of the Illinois senator's campaign to link the current White House occupant to the new Republican standard-bearer is 'a desperate attempt at the end of this campaign by Obama to try and stem the flow of people away from his campaign.'"

As Alberts notes, sparking Davis's ire was this ad- titled Rearview Mirror - that the Obama campaign plans to air heavily in key battleground states this weekend. In the ad, images of Bush keep popping up in the rearview mirrors of a car as road signs outside highlight criticisms of McCain's economic policy.

Via CBS News: "'Wonder where John McCain would take the economy? Look behind you,' an announcer says as the spot opens. Onscreen, a man driving his car is shown looking in his rearview mirror, where he sees Mr. Bush's face.

"'John McCain wants to continue George Bush's economic policies,' the announcer continues . . . 'Look behind you: We can't afford more of the same.'"

And as much as the McCain camp wishes it weren't so, the fact remains that voters generally don't see their candidate as enough of a change from Bush.

Gary Langer writes for ABC News: "For all the focus on the economy as John McCain's greatest problem, there's another right behind it: George W. Bush. . . .

"Fewer than half of likely voters in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll, 47 percent, think McCain would lead in a new direction; 50 percent instead say he'd mainly continue on Bush's path. McCain has not exceeded 48 percent 'new direction' all year, at a time when dissatisfaction with the country's current course has hit record highs.

"It matters: Among those who think McCain would lead in a new direction, 82 percent support him. But among those who think of him as Bush 2.0, 90 percent prefer Barack Obama instead -- one of the starkest dividing lines between the two candidates.

"Similarly, while McCain overwhelmingly is supported by the relatively few remaining Bush approvers, he loses Bush disapprovers -- 72 percent of likely voters -- by nearly a 3-1 margin, 71-27 percent."

Michael Cooper and Dalia Sussman write in the New York Times about the latest New York Times/CBS News poll: "With just days until Americans choose a new president, the survey found them deeply uneasy about the state of their country. Eight-five percent of respondents said the country was pretty seriously off on the wrong track, near the record high recorded earlier this month. A majority said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq. And President Bush's approval rating remains at 22 percent, tied for the lowest presidential approval rating on record (which was President Harry S, Truman's rating, recorded by the Gallup Poll in 1952).

"Mr. McCain's renewed efforts to cast himself as the candidate of change have apparently faltered. Sixty-four percent of voters polled said Mr. Obama would bring about real change if elected, while only 39 percent said Mr. McCain would."

CBS News reports: "Fifty-three percent expect the GOP nominee to continue Mr. Bush's policies. Forty-one percent do not."

Even Texans Reject Him

Bush talks a lot these days about how he's looking forward to going home to Texas. But it may not be quite as warm a homecoming as he was hoping for.

Dave Montgomery writes for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about how Texans are "joining the rest of the nation in registering sharp disapproval of his job performance as the nation's chief executive, according to a newly released statewide poll.

"Only 34 percent of Texans polled in a University of Texas survey approved of Bush's handling of the presidency, with just under 10 percent approving 'strongly.' By contrast, 55 percent disapproved, with 38.7 percent strongly disapproving.

"While the approval ratings are somewhat higher than national polls, the Texas findings reflect a significant downturn in popularity for a native son and former Texas governor who drew 61 percent of the Texas vote in his re-election victory over Democratic Sen. John Kerry four years ago. Throughout much of his two-term presidency, Texas has generally provided Bush with a safety net of robust support while he was losing favor elsewhere."

On the Trail

Sam Youngman writes for The Hill: "While President Bush has conspicuously stayed on the sidelines in the final days until the election, others close to him are venturing out on behalf of embattled Republican candidates.

"First Lady Laura Bush, always a popular draw for Republicans, was in Mississippi on Thursday to stump for Sen. Roger Wicker (R), and on Monday she will do the same for House candidate Brett Guthrie at a rally in Kentucky.

"That the first lady is hitting the road while the president stays in Washington speaks volumes to this election season's dilemma: Republican candidates have to run away from the administration and its policies while still looking for help in races that were considered runaways in once-reliably red states. . . .

"McCain . . . appears with the president only in commercials paid for and approved by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama or the Democratic National Committee (DNC). McCain spends most of his days seeking as much distance between he and the president as he can find."

And Youngman notes that "the first lady isn't the only current occupant of the White House getting in on the act.

"Vice President Dick Cheney, who enjoys approval ratings lower than the president's, is scheduled to attend a Victory rally in Wyoming on Saturday."

Economy Watch

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Under fire from Democrats and Republicans alike, the White House on Thursday defended giving billions of bailout dollars to banks that plan to reward shareholders and executives -- or even buy other banks.

"Allowing banks to engage in such normal business activities actually could help loosen lending and revive the sagging economy, said Ed Lazear, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. He said the administration would not impose any conditions on banks beyond those required when Congress created the bailout program, which authorized the government to buy stock in financial institutions. . . .

"Lazear was put before the cameras in the White House briefing room amid a rising chorus of complaints from lawmakers about the latitude that banks will have when they receive bailout money from Washington.

"That bailout was originally sold by the administration as a plan for the government to purchase toxic mortgage-based assets from financial institutions, to get them off their books and inspire the resumption of normal lending. After passage, though, the administration decided the better course would be to devote $250 billion into buying ownership stakes in banks.

"With taxpayers' money flowing into their vaults, banks are going ahead with paying dividends to shareholders, giving bonuses to top executives and acquiring competitors. Lawmakers are asking why banks with the money to do those things need taxpayer-funded help."

Alison Vekshin and Robert Schmidt write for Bloomberg: "The White House and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson are seeking to scale back a proposal by Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair to guarantee mortgages to help stem foreclosures, according to two congressional aides briefed on the matter.

"The Bush administration is reluctant to sign off on the plan because of its cost, the two people indicated."

Daniel W. Reilly writes for Politico: "A group of Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee sent President Bush a letter Thursday, accusing the administration of not dedicating 'the time, attention or resources needed' to address the foreclosure issue.

"In the letter, the senators called on the Treasury Department to work with the FDIC to allow banks to restructure mortgages to keep more people in their homes.

"'Mr. President, time is short,' the senators wrote. 'Every day we delay, thousands more families face the specter of losing their homes. We cannot afford another delay.'"

Gitmo Watch

Peter Finn and Del Quentin Wilber write in The Washington Post: "A federal judge yesterday questioned the motives of Justice Department lawyers for withdrawing allegations linking a Guantanamo Bay detainee to a 'dirty bomb' plot in the United States shortly before they were required to hand over exculpatory evidence to the defense.

"'That raises serious questions in this court's mind about whether those allegations were ever true,' said U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who is overseeing a lawsuit brought by Binyam Mohammed, 30, a resident of Britain who is challenging his detention at the U.S. military facility in Cuba. Sullivan warned that 'someone is going to rue the day those allegations were made' if it turns out that the government had evidence that they were unfounded. . . .

"Mohammed said the CIA rendered him to Morocco weeks after he was arrested in Pakistan in April 2002. His attorneys argue that the government's allegations are based on confessions their client made after his detention and torture in Morocco, where, they say, he was slashed with razors.

"'He parroted what his torturers wanted him to say,' said Zachary Katznelson, one of Mohammed's attorneys. 'All they have are Mr. Mohammed's own words, and they were extracted at the tip of a razor blade.'

"The government said Mohammed voluntarily confessed to a number of terrorist crimes, including the dirty-bomb plot, in 2004 at Bagram air base in Afghanistan before his transfer to Guantanamo Bay. The government has never acknowledged that he was in Morocco."

William Glaberson writes in the New York Times: "In 2002, John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, announced that a plot to detonate a radioactive bomb in the United States had been foiled and an American citizen, Jose Padilla, detained. The Pentagon has claimed that Mr. Mohamed assisted Mr. Padilla.

"After Mr. Padilla was held for three and a half years in a naval brig, the Justice Department abandoned its dirty-bomb claims against him. He was convicted of other charges in 2007."

But wait, there's more. As Robert Verkaik writes for the Independent: "Senior CIA officers could be put on trial in Britain after it emerged last night that the [British] Attorney General is to investigate allegations that a British resident held in Guantanamo Bay was brutally tortured, after being arrested and questioned by American forces following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

"The Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has asked Baroness Scotland to consider bringing criminal proceedings against Americans allegedly responsible for the rendition and abuse of Binyam Mohamed, when he was held in prisons in Morocco and Afghanistan.

"The development follows criticism of US prosecutors by British judges who have seen secret evidence of torture committed against Mr Mohamed, including allegations his torturers used a razor blade to repeatedly cut his penis. The Attorney's investigation is expected to include allegations that MI5 colluded in Mr Mohamed's rendition. Mr Mohamed, 30, an Ethiopian national and British resident, was arrested in Pakistan in 2002, when he was questioned by an MI5 officer.

"On Tuesday, Government lawyers wrote to the judges hearing Mr Mohamed's case against the UK government in the High Court. In the letter they said 'the question of possible criminal wrongdoing to which these proceedings has given rise has been referred by the Home Secretary to the Attorney general for consideration as an independent minister of justice'. Baroness Scotland has been sent secret witness statements given to the court and public interest immunity certificates for the proceedings."

And in news of another case, Peter Finn writes in The Washington Post: "A military judge has refused to reconsider the sentence of Osama bin Laden's former driver, forcing the Bush administration to either release a man it insists is a dangerous terrorist in two months or continue to hold him at Guantanamo Bay as an enemy combatant despite his having served his time after a trial and conviction."

Iraq Watch

Robert H. Reid writes for the Associated Press: "Iraq wants to eliminate any chance U.S. forces will stay here after 2011 under a proposed security pact and to expand Iraqi legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops until then, a close ally of the prime minister said Thursday.

"Those demands, which were presented to U.S. officials this week, could derail the deal -- delivering a diplomatic blow to Washington in the final weeks of the Bush administration.

"Failure to reach an agreement before year's end could force a suspension of American military operations, and U.S. commanders have been warning Iraqi officials that could endanger security improvements."

Olivier Knox writes for AFP: "The White House on Thursday charged that politics and posturing in Iraq were delaying a controversial US-Iraq security accord but said it remained 'hopeful and confident' about the pact.

"Days before the November 4 US elections, spokeswoman Dana Perino said 'on our side, I don't think that politics is playing a lot of a role in it' because both US presidential hopefuls were generally supportive of the accord.

"'On the Iraqi side, I can't say the same when it comes to internal politics there. And they might even be looking at our domestic politics and trying to game that out, some people, maybe,' she told reporters."

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Two years ago, President Bush hailed Najim al Jabouri as a symbol of success in the battle to curb Iraq's sectarian violence. Today, Jabouri is a symbol of how uncertain that success is.

"Last month, Jabouri quietly left Tal Afar, an ancient city near Iraq's desert border with Syria where he was the police chief and the mayor, collected his wife and four children and flew to safety in the United States. . . .

"His decision underscores the fragility of the relative calm that's settled on Iraq, obscuring the unresolved ethnic and sectarian tensions, political infighting and anger at the U.S. occupation, economic paralysis and continuing terrorism."

Syria Watch

Jonathan Karl reports for ABC News that Gen. David Petraeus "proposed visiting Syria shortly after taking over as the top U.S. commander for the Middle East.

"The idea was swiftly rejected by Bush administration officials at the White House, State Department and the Pentagon.

"Petraeus, who becomes the commander of U.S. Central Command (Centcom) Friday, had hoped to meet in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Petraeus proposed the trip, and senior officials objected, before the covert U.S. strike earlier this week on a target inside Syria's border with Iraq."

But as Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald points out, this is not the exclusive Karl claims.

Syria Comment blogger Joshua Landis writes that he "has been writing since August 2008 that Petraeus tried to go to Damascus in the fall of 2007, but was refused permission by the Vice President. It wasn't the president. (That little bit of info is an SC exclusive told to me by a top intelligence officer.)"

No Presser for You

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News Service: "President Bush hasn't held a news conference since July 15. And that one ended with this comment from Bush: 'OK, I've enjoyed it. Thank you very much for your time. Appreciate it.'

"Apparently he didn't enjoy it and appreciate all that much. He hasn't had a news conference since then and generally has ignored questions lobbed his way at White House events. . . .

"Can we expect a presidential news conference anytime soon?"

Not likely. From yesterday's press briefing:

Q. "Dana, looking ahead to the election, you said a while back that the President was trying not to give any press conferences while the campaign was going on, to let the candidates sort of have their own spotlight. When will we hear from the President once the election is over?"

Perino: "You'll probably hear from me that night, and then we'll see after that."

Q. "In terms of, you know, a press conference, obviously many of these questions were questions we'd love to direct to him."

Perino: "How long have you covered the White House, this White House? Do we ever forecast when we're going to have press conferences? No. And I really don't think that's going to change after November 4th. So you'll just have to keep dressing up everyday, and then we'll see."

Cartoon Watch

Lee Judge on the real October Surprise, John Sherffius on George the "Contractor", and Larry Wright and Rob Rogers on scary costumes.

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