Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cheney the... okay, he's no environmentalist


In the final installment of the Washington Post's series on Dick Cheney, the story focuses on his environmental record (previous commentary, including links to the rest of the series, is here and here).

We again see the same methodology: operating in secret, reaching down to the lowest levels of the bureaucracy to effect the policies he wants.

In this case, though, it's hard to discern a guiding principle at work other than "in any conflict between the environment and business, business is always right."

Actually, make that "businesses I care about."

The main example in the story focuses on the Klamath River basin in Oregon, which pitted drought-stricken farmers against the survival of two species of fish in the Klamath River, from which the farmers wanted to draw their water. The law and science supported the fish, but Cheney wanted the farmers to get their water. So he challenged the science, and based on a preliminary report, declared there was "no threat" to the fish and got the restrictions removed.

What happened next is classic Cheney. The fish died in droves, causing the collapse of commercial salmon fisheries in Oregon and Northern California. In order to protect a few farmers, Cheney destroyed an even larger -- but less politically valuable -- industry. Typically, his approach later lost in the courts, where an Interior Department fish-management plan was decisively rejected because it would essentially have managed the fish out of existence.

It's especially appalling when you consider that the Endangered Species Act has a provision for overriding environmental concerns when the economic impact is judged to be too large. Or that the farmers could have been helped out more cheaply and less controversially simply by giving them drought relief checks so they didn't need to farm.

By the way, you have to love this paragraph. It involves Robert Smith, a former Republican congressman who was a lobbyist for the Klamath farmers.

Smith had served with Cheney on the House Interior Committee in the 1980s, and the former congressman said he turned to the vice president because he knew him as a man of the West who didn't take kindly to federal bureaucrats meddling with private use of public land.

Yep, the Western spirit of rugged individualism means the federal government shouldn't regulate the private use of public land. Let's not even get into the fact that the land is usually leased at far below market rates, providing a government subsidy to the lucky recipients.

Maybe, if people are so ruggedly individualistic that they don't want federal oversight, they should buy their own land and stop sponging off the government.

The second major example involved the administration's efforts to weaken pollution-control rules for power plants, under the Orwellian-named "Clear Skies Initiative." The administration pushed through the revised rules -- drawing searing public criticism, the resignation of EPA chief Christie Whitman and, of course, eventual legal defeat.

A federal appeals court has since found that the rule change violated the Clean Air Act. In their ruling, the judges said that the administration had redefined the law in a way that could be valid "only in a Humpty-Dumpty world."


Jonah Goldberg, a columnist I usually have little respect for, actually sums it up perfectly this time:

Seemingly countless sources inside the Bush administration tell the Post that Cheney has a contempt for bureaucratic and legislative consensus-building that rivals his contempt for cultivating public support through the media. As a result, he often succeeds in bulldozing policies -- on enemy interrogations, etc. -- all the way to the president's desk. But he's isolated when it comes time to defend these policies in Congress and the public.

The biggest question now is one I asked in earlier installments. There's no doubt that Cheney is an effective bureaucratic combatant, and also effective at getting things done. In sane hands, those are admirable traits. But given the often-disastrous outcome of his meddling, why does Bush still listen to him?

I'm sure it's useful to have Cheney as a lightning rod, deflecting at least some criticism away from Bush. But that only goes so far, because the reason Cheney is able to do what he does is that Bush lets him. Further, you'd think the adverse practical effects of his approach would outweigh the convenience of having someone to take the blame. Especially when Bush already has Karl Rove for that.

The whole series also raises the question of whether Bush is/was aware of the extent to which Cheney manipulated the bureaucracy and constrained the choices that were eventually presented to the president. It's one thing to have a trusted advisor; it's another for that advisor to make sure that opposing views are rarely heard or weakly presented. Echo chambers do not produce good policy.

All in all, a fascinating, deeply reported series by the Post. This is investigative, explanatory journalism at its best, offering an authoritative inside look at the operations of government, a feat that's all the more impressive given the secretiveness of its subject.

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is this-----your 7th article on Cheney in recent days?

Are you getting your talking points from Leahy, Schumer, Conyers, and Waxman?

JP5

6/27/2007 5:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post, Sean. It's good to see some spotlight on Cheney since he is so secretive and he has had so much influence on policy. That's one reason why I sometimes feel a bit sorry for Bush...because a lot of the time it's actually Cheney who has done such a hatchet job on government policy.
- Caracarn

6/27/2007 5:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Jp5
Sean has not taken his talking points from you. Thank God for that
GK

6/28/2007 2:10 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

JP5: He's in the news, between the four-part Post series and the flap over his claiming not to be part of the executive branch.

Caracarn: Thanks. As I noted, though, Bush is the one who has given Cheney free rein. So he doesn't really get a pass, either.

6/28/2007 3:22 PM  

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