Dec. 4, 2003

Presidential Mystery Solved: Why Bush Is Stopping at Home Depot

Bush Rewards Generous GOP Donor with Visit to Maryland Store on Friday; Energy Bill Includes $48 Million Tax Break that Benefits the Giant Retailer

WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Bush will make two stops in Maryland on Friday. The first is an exclusive, big-ticket fundraiser in Baltimore, where he is expected to add another million dollars to his massive campaign war chest. Then he’ll deliver a speech on the economy to workers at a Home Depot in nearby Halethorpe.

Bush’s appearance at the home improvement behemoth has left the locals a bit baffled. On Wednesday, The Sun in Baltimore ran a story on the president’s upcoming visit to the town of 20,000 in southwest Baltimore County. Titled "A Presidential Mystery," the article confirmed Bush’s itinerary but concluded that "nobody seems to know why" he’s going to Halethorpe’s Home Depot.

Research by Public Citizen suggests the president’s visit is yet another way to reward the nation’s second-largest retailer for its generosity to the Bush campaign and the Republican Party. Home Depot employees and their families have given $1.5 million to the GOP since 1999, according to data provided to Public Citizen by the Center for Responsive Politics.

During that time, no candidate has benefited from Home Depot’s largesse more than Bush. The total includes $907,950 in mostly "soft money" donations to the Republican National Committee before such giving was outlawed by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). So far this year, Home Depot employees and the company political action committee have contributed $31,000 to the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.

"Every time Bush has a fundraiser, he also schedules a purportedly public event to pass the cost onto the taxpayers," said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. "These carefully staged performances before a captive audience of workers are a sham. The president has managed to turn policy pronouncements into free PR for his most generous political supporters."

Campaign contributions have helped cement a close working relationship between Home Depot and the Bush administration. Consider these uncanny connections:

Duty-Free Favors

Buried in two small paragraphs on page 710 of the massive, stalled energy bill is a measure that would lift a tariff on Chinese-made ceiling fans sold by Home Depot. The new language was inserted during the closed-door conference committee and had never been debated by either branch of Congress. According to estimates by the Joint Committee on Taxation, suspension of the tariffs would cost the U.S. Treasury $48 million over five years. Home Depot CEO Robert Nardelli – who is making the trip up from Atlanta to appear alongside Bush – is hoping the White House will do some more arm-twisting on the energy bill to overcome a Senate filibuster that has blocked its passage.

Friday won’t be Nardelli’s first appearance with the president. The former GE executive, who took control of Home Depot in 2000, has made at least three trips to the White House during the Bush administration. Most recently, Nardelli was recognized at a November ceremony honoring eight companies for supporting workers who had been deployed in Iraq. In December 2002, Nardelli accompanied NASCAR champion Tony Stewart – who drives a car sponsored by Home Depot – to the Oval Office. A few months earlier, Nardelli attended a White House conference on volunteerism, an event that led to his appointment to Bush’s Council on Service and Civic Participation.

Revolving-Door Connections

The Bush administration’s close ties to Home Depot don’t stop there. Executive Vice President Francis Blake, the company’s No. 2 person, left his post as Bush’s deputy energy secretary after just 10 months on the job in 2001 to work for Home Depot. Blake, who worked for Nardelli at GE, previously served as general counsel to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Clinton.

The wife of Kent Knutson, Home Depot’s top in-house lobbyist, formerly was a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. Karen Knutson served as deputy director of the National Energy Policy Development Group, better known as Cheney’s secret energy task force. She left the administration last year to become a lobbyist.

Federal disclosure forms show Home Depot spending only $20,000 on lobbying during the first six months of 2003 with the firm Miller & Chevalier (for the "suspension of tariffs on ceiling fans"). But the company prefers to work behind the scenes. According to internal documents uncovered by The Wall Street Journal in 2001, Home Depot secretly gave $1 million to the Institute for Legal Reform, an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to buy ads aimed at electing business-friendly judges.

Energy-Saving Tiff

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich – who is hosting Bush’s Baltimore fundraiser – has his own history with Home Depot. Last May, he vetoed energy-efficiency legislation passed by wide margins in both houses of the state legislature after intense lobbying by the company.

The bill would have set energy-efficiency standards for nine types of appliances not covered by federal rules. The Natural Resources Defense Council calculated that the bill could save consumers $600 million in energy costs by 2020. But Home Depot objected to "mandatory standards" governing ceiling fans, arguing that government-subsidized "Energy Star" fans should not be the only ones approved for sale.

Ironically, these are the same fans for which Home Depot is seeking tariff relief.

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