A Consumer’s Guide to the 2008 State of the Union Address

Jan. 29, 2008

A Consumer’s Guide to the 2008 State of the Union Address

We knew that President Bush’s final State of the Union address would be less than impressive when it comes to what the American people truly want. We expected him to continue pushing for the same programs and policies he’s backed for the past eight years. And of course, Dubya didn’t disappoint. But to borrow from the president’s past pearls of wisdom, “Fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.”

The following is Public Citizen’s guide to the 2008 State of the Union, where consumers can get complete and accurate information about the issues.

Congressional Earmarks:

WHAT BUSH SAID

“And tomorrow, I will issue an executive order that directs federal agencies to ignore any future earmark that is not voted on by Congress. If these items are truly worth funding, Congress should debate them in the open and hold a public vote.”

OUR RESPONSE

Call them earmarks, if you must, but they ain’t the “pork” of yesteryear. One major component of the new lobbying and ethics legislation is earmark reform.

Earmarks today are far fewer in number and out in the open for all to see. Both the number and dollar amount of earmarks reached an all-time high during the last Congress (the 109th) with Republicans firmly in control of both chambers and the White House – with 13,997 earmarks worth $27.3 billion in 2005 and 9,963 earmarks worth $29 billion in 2006. But this year, under the new 110th Congress, earmarks plummeted to only 2,658 earmarks worth $13.2 billion in 2007, and 11,043 earmarks worth $14.1 billion in omnibus appropriations and related bills for 2008 – a reduction in the amount of earmarks by half.

Just as importantly, earmarks are no longer secret. It used to be that pet spending projects were quietly inserted into massive spending bills. Not any more. The new reforms require each earmark to be clearly identified and assigned a sponsor – and posted on the Internet 48 hours before a vote. Committee reports even put this information in chart format.

The Bush administration and the 109th Congress loved the out-of-control system of earmarks, hidden from the public. But now that the 110th Congress has reined in earmark abuse and opened the books – “bridges to nowhere” earmarks are no more to be found in the new budget bills – Bush feigns that he is at the head of the pack on earmark reform.

Health Care:

WHAT BUSH SAID

“To build a future of quality health care, we must trust patients and doctors to make medical decisions and empower them with better information and better options. We share a common goal: making health care more affordable and accessible for all Americans. The best way to achieve that goal is by expanding consumer choice, not government control. So I have proposed ending the bias in the tax code against those who do not get their health insurance through their employer. This one reform would put private coverage within reach for millions, and I call on the Congress to pass it this year.

“The Congress must also expand health savings accounts, create Association Health Plans for small businesses, promote health information technology, and confront the epidemic of junk medical lawsuits. With all these steps, we will help ensure that decisions about your medical care are made in the privacy of your doctor’s office – not in the halls of Congress.”

OUR RESPONSE

These are the same market-based health care solutions that Bush and his fellow Republicans have been touting for ages. The only real way to make health care and insurance affordable for all Americans is to create a universal health care program coordinated by the federal government.

Medical Malpractice and “Junk” Lawsuits:

WHAT BUSH SAID

“The Congress must also … confront the epidemic of junk medical lawsuits.”

OUR RESPONSE

In 2006, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health published findings that revealed that “portraits of a malpractice system that is stricken with frivolous litigation are overblown.” In fact, research by Public Citizen demonstrates that the real crisis in medical malpractice is not one of so-called “junk lawsuits” but one of a serious lack of physician oversight – only six percent of doctors account for more than 58 percent of all malpractice claims. Since 1991, preventable medical errors cause between 44,000 and 98,000 deaths each year in hospital settings.

The president should address the real medical problems the nation faces – the high incidence of preventable medical errors and the lack of doctor discipline for the small group of doctors that account for the majority of malpractice payments.

Global Trade Policy:

WHAT BUSH SAID

“On trade, we must trust American workers to compete with anyone in the world and empower them by opening up new markets overseas. Today, our economic growth increasingly depends on our ability to sell American goods and crops and services all over the world. So we’re working to break down barriers to trade and investment wherever we can. We’re working for a successful Doha Round of trade talks, and we must complete a good agreement this year. At the same time, we’re pursuing opportunities to open up new markets by passing free trade agreements.

“I thank the Congress for approving a good agreement with Peru. And now I ask you to approve agreements with Colombia and Panama and South Korea. Many products from these nations now enter America duty-free, yet many of our products face steep tariffs in their markets. These agreements will level the playing field. They will give us better access to nearly 100 million customers. They will support good jobs for the finest workers in the world: those whose products say ‘Made in the USA.’

“These agreements also promote America’s strategic interests. The first agreement that will come before you is with Colombia, a friend of America that is confronting violence and terror, and fighting drug traffickers. If we fail to pass this agreement, we will embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere. So we must come together, pass this agreement, and show our neighbors in the region that democracy leads to a better life.

“Trade brings better jobs and better choices and better prices. Yet for some Americans, trade can mean losing a job, and the federal government has a responsibility to help. I ask Congress to reauthorize and reform trade adjustment assistance, so we can help these displaced workers learn new skills and find new jobs.”

OUR RESPONSE

The Colombia free trade agreement is dead, but the Bush administration will keep hyping it because that’s what GOP corporate campaign contributors want to hear, given that this NAFTA expansion deal would grant U.S. corporations special rights to control Colombia’s banking sector and Amazonian gas and timber riches.

Americans’ experience of the damage caused by our status quo trade policies means the usual Bush administration claims about trade deals bring economic gains won’t fly, so to try to revive a dead deal, Bush is resorting to the familiar foreign policy boogie man scare tactics. In reality, the threat of U.S. security is not from failure to pass this agreement but from passing it, given that it is projected to dislocate tens of thousands of peasant farmers in Colombia’s war-wracked countryside, which then will lead to increases in paramilitary activity, drug cultivation and immigration.

Colombia’s own Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs concluded that the agreement’s agricultural terms would wipe out the livelihoods of one-third of the country’s small farmers. The agency also concluded that the FTA would give small farmers little choice but “migration to the cities or other countries (especially the United States), working in drug cultivation zones, or affiliating with illegal armed groups.” (“Colombian Agriculture Before the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S,” Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, July 2004.)

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz noted that the upheaval that agreements such as the proposed free trade agreement will have on rural livelihoods is a self-defeating course that will mean “there will be more violence and the U.S. will have to spend more on coca eradication.”

The Washington Post’s editorial board warned in February 2006 that the “rural dislocation that would follow from ending all protection for Colombian farmers could undermine the government’s efforts to pacify the countryside. If farmers can’t grow rice, they are more likely to grow coca.”

Energy Policy and Global Warming:

WHAT BUSH SAID

“To build a future of energy security, we must trust in the creative genius of American researchers and entrepreneurs and empower them to pioneer a new generation of clean energy technology. Our security, our prosperity, and our environment all require reducing our dependence on oil. Last year, I asked you to pass legislation to reduce oil consumption over the next decade, and you responded. Together we should take the next steps: Let us fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions. Let us increase the use of renewable power and emissions-free nuclear power. Let us create a new international clean technology fund, which will help developing nations like India and China make greater use of clean energy sources. And let us complete an international agreement that has the potential to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases.

“This agreement will be effective only if it includes commitments by every major economy and gives none a free ride. The United States is committed to strengthening our energy security and confronting global climate change. And the best way to meet these goals is for America to continue leading the way toward the development of cleaner and more energy-efficient technology.”

OUR RESPONSE

President Bush’s rhetoric and record on energy policy are worlds apart. His veto threats just months ago stopped legislation that would have mandated that 15 percent of America’s electricity come from renewable energy by 2020 and prevented the funding of needed clean energy and efficiency programs by repealing billions of dollars in subsidies to Big Oil. And Bush’s insistence on billions of dollars for risky technologies like carbon capture and storage and nuclear power takes needed money away from proven and safe investments like wind, solar and energy efficiency. Let us not forget that Bush’s representatives at the Bali climate change conference blocked progress on establishing a global framework to combat global warming. Bush’s record is clear: Continue rewarding the coal, oil and nuclear industries while blocking progress on the clean energy solutions that Americans need.

Fuel Economy:

WHAT BUSH SAID

“Let us continue investing in advanced battery technology and renewable fuels to power the cars and trucks of the future.”

OUR RESPONSE

The energy bill does indeed call for an increase in fuel economy – a historic, but ultimately weak, increase in the fuel economy of the combined car and truck fleets to 35 miles per gallon. And it does change the legal framework for fuel economy standards to demand attribute-based (such as size-based) standards, like the standards crafted behind closed doors by senior White House officials, including the Office of the Vice President, for the 2005 light truck rule. This sliding scale approach is the end of the fair, across-the-board CAFE standards that saved Detroit from itself in the 1970s and 1980s. This new fuel economy scheme could have serious safety consequences because it rewards the makers of big, dangerous gas-guzzlers with lower fuel economy targets.

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