For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 7, 2001
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
Listen to the Briefing
1:13 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I have nothing to announce, so I'm pleased to take your questions.
Q Ari, why is a temporary or permanent cut in the federal gasoline tax not a possible option for the problem with spiraling prices?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is very concerned about the rise in gasoline prices. He's very concerned about the impact that it's having on Americans, particularly, lower income Americans, who need their vehicles to drive to get to work and to enjoy their family lives. And that's one of the reasons the President is pushing so strongly for a comprehensive energy policy, and also for a tax cut, so he can get money into the hands of people who are being hit by rising gas prices.
During the campaign last year there was much made about the possibility of repealing the federal gas tax, or limiting the federal gas tax. The President did not join in that call. I would alert you just to wait until the final recommendations come out of the task force.
As I indicated this morning, the President has not joined that chorus before -- I do not rule it out, but I have said very clearly that's not something the President is focused on. His focus is on long-term solutions, not quick fixes. Quick fixes don't work. He wants to have a focus on that which is long-term, that will work.
Q Well, wouldn't this quick fix certainly work in shaving a little bit off the price? What's the detriment of doing it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the focus of the President is to move forward on a long-term solution to a problem that's been very long in the making. And one of the things that's wrong with Washington, in the President's opinion, is people too often move from one quick fix, one short-term, non-solution to the next short-term non-solution, without focusing people's attention on the big matters that really count.
And in the case of energy, that's a focus on how to conserve energy, conserve fuel, develop more resources, have better infrastructures so that electricity can move across transmission grids and natural gas can move across pipelines in a manner that gets the market to the market, in a manner that lowers costs on a full-time basis for the consumer.
Q Is one of the problems with this, and the entire energy field, American lifestyles? Does the President believe that, given the amount of energy Americans consume per capita, how much it exceeds any other citizen in any other country in the world, does the President believe we need to correct our lifestyles to address the energy problem?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's a big no. The President believes that it's an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one. And we have a bounty of resources in this country. What we need to do is make certain that we're able to get those resources in an efficient way, in a way that also emphasizes protecting the environment and conservation, into the hands of consumers so they can make the choices that they want to make as they live their lives day to day.
Q So Americans should go on consuming as much more energy than any other citizens in any other countries of the world, as long as they want?
MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, the President believes that the American people are very wise and that, given the right incentives, they will know how and they will make their own right determinations about how much they can conserve, just as the President announced last week that the federal government, as part of its consumership in California will reduce energy needs -- for example, the Department of Defense facilities in California, by 10 percent. He believes the American people, too, will make the right decisions about conservation and the program he will announce shortly will also include a series of conservation items.
But the President also believes that the American people's use of energy is a reflection of the strength of our economy, of the way of life that the American people have come to enjoy. And he wants to make certain that a national energy policy is comprehensive, that includes conservation, includes a way of allowing the American people to continue to enjoy the way of life that has made the United States such a leading nation in the world.
Q Ari, would he recommend, then, to people, as a President exercising his moral leadership, that they're more conscious of the amount of energy they use, that they scale back, that people conserve more?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you'll hear a rounded and comprehensive proposal very shortly from the President that includes several items that hint at what you're suggesting.
Q -- use the word "conservation" in selling the energy plan, the reality is that the core of this plan to be unveiled is a call on finding more energy supplies. And everybody has emphasized that. There's a growing chorus now of not just environmental activists, but also scientists within the government who say that, in fact, conservation and renewable energies could do a lot more to cut demand than is being given credit for or even being given a try. Do you dismiss the recent DOE study that came to that conclusion?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, we do not dismiss it. But you can't prejudge what the President is going to propose because you don't know what he is going to propose in terms of conservation.
Q Well, I think we all know some of the really core outlines of it.
MR. FLEISCHER: There's also a reflection of the fact that 88 percent of America's energy comes from fossil fuels. The remaining 12 percent come from renewables, biomass, wind, solar. It's a very small percentage. And among that 12 percent -- you also have nuclear in that mix. And so the amount of energy that can come from -- let me put it to you this way.
The place that the American people get most of their energy that we are dependent on to preserve the American way of life does come from fossil fuels. And within the remaining portion of the energy that the American people use, the President is committed to a conservation program to help Americans to conserve more. And that's reflected in the President's priorities, the weatherization program in his budget, for example, to help people have more energy-efficient homes. And it will also be reflected in some other things you're going to learn in the next week or two when the President unveils his policy.
Conservation is, indeed, an important part of getting America energy-independent. Conservation alone is not the answer. Nothing alone is the answer, and that's why the President's proposal will be a very well-rounded one.
Q Ari, you said a moment ago that the President still believes that it's important to get tax relief into the hands of the American people because of the rising energy costs. Does he still support a retroactive tax cut for this year?
MR. FLEISCHER: Of course he does.
Q So that's a quick fix to a long-term problem in conjunction with a long-term fix. Does he not see the need for a short-term fix in conjunction with his long-term energy policy?
MR. FLEISCHER: The singular reason that gas prices are rising is because of a problem with refinery utilization in this country. Our refineries are running full-bore. It's not just that we have a problem with supply; it's more a problem that no new refineries have been built in the United States in the last 25 years. You can cut taxes retroactively and get money in the hands of low-income consumers who have been hit by the rising price of gasoline. You can't retroactively build a refinery; it takes years. So the two are not comparable.
Q But you can take some bridging steps, if you will, to try to cover the time between now and when the refineries are built, or when the peak demand for energy tails off. Why is he not considering any of that?
MR. FLEISCHER: I would urge you to await the report that's going to come out soon.
Q Ari, does the President believe the sudden increase in gas prices in certain areas of the country is justified?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is always concerned, as I said, about the rising price of energy. And that's why his administration is the first administration in quite a little while to push to make certain that our country has a comprehensive energy policy. Of course the President is concerned about it. He thinks the price is too high, and he wants to do everything in his power to bring it down.
Q He doesn't follow -- he doesn't see any suggestions of price gouging or that type of thing?
MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, this administration will be vigilant, to make certain that if there is price gouging, we are able to track it down and put an end to it. The administration will remain vigilant to make certain that is not the case.
Q Ari, you've sent a pretty clear signal that there doesn't seem to be anything in the short term the President is inclined to do, even if gas prices go to $3 a gallon in prices like California and the Midwest. Does that mean that he feels gas prices going to $3 a gallon would not imperil the economy, would not imperil the recovery that we may be in now?
MR. FLEISCHER: There will be things that can be done in the short term to affect conservation, for example. There will be a series of actions that can be short-term helpful to America's broader energy needs. But the focus of this program is going to be what the American people have been looking to Washington to do for so long, which is to demonstrate long-term leadership. If five or 10 years ago people in Washington had focused on these issues, the United States would not be in the position it's in today.
Q So he does not see the possibility of gasoline prices at $3 a gallon as a threat to the economy?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think he is worried about it, and that's why he wants to have a national energy policy in place, to prevent this from becoming a continuing problem. And it's also why he wants to cut taxes, so that the effect of this gasoline, in effect, tax hike, can be reversed by getting money back into the hands of consumers.
Q Besides the fact that it's a short-term fix, why did the President, when he was governor, support reducing the federal gas tax? And why doesn't he support it now?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, during the campaign this issue came up and, frankly, it was a politically sensitive hot spot for the Vice President who was running and for President Clinton, at the time. And the President just chose not to join in on something that he viewed as much more short-term political than long-term policy.
Q He supports lowering taxes. What's wrong with lowering this tax? Why not do it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, because the focus the President wants to concentrate on is how to solve a permanent problem. And that is where the core of this matter lies.
Q If he could permanently reduce, immediately reduce the cost of gasoline by 18 cents a gallon, why not do it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, if you reduce it by 18 cents a gallon, of course, then you're going to wreak havoc with America's road infrastructure and airline and plane infrastructure. The ability of the United States to build roads and repair roads and bridges depends on the amount of revenue that comes in from a dedicated tax source.
So the President is not unsympathetic to those who want to provide an immediate reduction. But he wants to remind everybody that the solution is long-term and that the risk in Washington is everybody focuses so much on short-term, quick fixes, to the expense of long-term solutions that Washington never gets around to the long-term solutions that the American people have elected people here to do.
Q On price gouging, how does the government go about monitoring that? Does someone have to make an allegation to the Federal Trade Commission or to FERC? Or is this something they do on their own?
MR. FLEISCHER: This is not a new issue. This is something that has risen virtually every time in the last 20 years that gas prices have gone up, and every time the Department of Justice has looked at this matter and has issued its report. And the Department of Justice has action on this.
Q It's a Department of Justice matter?
MR. FLEISCHER: The Department of Justice is vigilant on this. It's a Department of Justice matter.
Q So they -- do they have a group that regularly monitors gasoline prices and then launches an investigation?
MR. FLEISCHER: They have been the lead agency on this over the last, I think it's about 20 years.
Q Two, Ari. One, quickly, to follow up on Ron. So is the answer to this whole gas tax question that the President believes the federal gas tax right now is at the appropriate level, that's where it should be?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President believes that the best focus on how to reduce America's over supply and rising gas prices -- under supply and rising gas prices is by focusing on a long-term, comprehensive plan.
Q So he supports a gas tax of 18 percent?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, what he has said is that he's going to resist short-term, quick fixes. He wants the focus to be on the long-term solutions.
Q In the political context of this argument, then, when this report comes out on the 17th and the President is proposing tax incentives for oil companies that will build new refineries; tax incentives to help people build infrastructure, like pipelines; tax incentives for all sorts of new development and putting the government on record of favoring new development -- politically, aren't you worried that your not-so-friendly people on Capitol Hill are going to sit up and say, where's the tax incentive for the guy who is paying $2 a gallon or more?
MR. FLEISCHER: Two points for you. One is, I would not rush to conclude what's going to be in the program that the President will propose. And, two, the President is not going to focus on what Washington always focuses on, which is political solutions to get you through the night. He's going to focus on long-term solutions that get the American people through both the night and the day.
Q Ari, you said last week that President Clinton was going to China as a private citizen. But it turns out he's been briefed by Condi Rice and by the State Department, and he says you actually encouraged him to go and said he could have a positive impact, possibly help win release of the spy plane. Can you tell us, was this administration's position on his trip to encourage it or neutral?
MR. FLEISCHER: The administration's position is exactly as you heard. President Clinton is going as a private citizen. He did talk to Condoleezza Rice prior to his departure. That is typical of traveling Presidents, no matter what reasons they go to, but especially when they go to regions that are a little more sensitive, as China is at this time. And the position of the White House is he's going as a private citizen, and the White House has raised no objections to President Clinton's travel.
Q Does that mean when he said you encouraged him he was incorrect?
MR. FLEISCHER: I've answered your question.
Q In recent months President Bush has been inviting the foreign leaders, the Prime Ministers and Presidents, to the White House. The Prime Minister of India or anybody from that area on the list?
MR. FLEISCHER: As you know, we will keep you informed of all announcements of visiting heads of state.
Q And going back to the energy crisis, small businesses in the U.S. are worried; so is the international community. Are we heading to the 1973 or worse situation, long lines and --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President certainly hopes we are not. But when you take a look at the amount of oil the United States imports, we are importing upward now of 60 percent of our foreign oil from foreign sources. During the height of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, I think it was down in the 30s or 40 percents, and now it's up to a much, much higher level. The amount of energy we are developing domestically has declined during that same period of time, so we are more dependent on foreign supplies of oil, even though the foreign supplies now are more diverse.
Back in 1973, they came principally from the Arab OPEC nations; now it comes from foreign suppliers, but it includes Venezuela, it includes Mexico, it includes a diversity of foreign sources. So times are different. But one of the biggest differences, though, that sets this era apart from the '70s is the American economy's dependence on electricity. In the new Internet-e-economy, electricity to power up people's PCs on their desks and their laptops, which they take everywhere they go, is a very different measure of use than it was in the 1970s.
I'm reminded when I was in college, for example, we used to take notes on pads and use pens. Now you see all the PCs in people's rooms and laptops that students bring to class and plug in. We are a very different economy and that ability to power that economy is the strength of America. The Internet economy, the e-economy has been one of the ways that America has led the world in growth over the last five, eight years. And the President wants to maintain that way of life.
Q And how do you --
MR. FLEISCHER: You only get two. New rule.
Q You took a question this morning about whether the energy report was going to be printed tonight. What's the answer to that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Don't have a good update for you yet. It will be printed sufficiently ahead of time that it can be released when we have announced it will be released, which is soon.
Q Ari? Ari?
MR. FLEISCHER: Is everybody ready? (Laughter.)
Q Thank you. Thank you very much.
Q Can I ask one more on oil before we take --
Q I will certainly yield to --
MR. FLEISCHER: My question still stands. (Laughter.)
Q During the campaign, then-Governor Bush was talking about increasing supply by drilling in ANWR, by speaking with our OPEC allies and getting them to open the spigot. Was he just unaware of the scope of the infrastructure problem at that time, or is this something new?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, but that certainly is one element of fixing the problem, the ability to have a steady and reliant supply. And as you know, Saudi Arabia indicated, and so, too, did other OPEC nations, that they wanted to keep the price of gasoline -- of oil -- capped at about $28 per barrel. And there are a variety of factors which go into keeping America's energy free and flowing, and it involves supply, it involves infrastructure, it involves conservation, it involves protecting the environment.
Q But he didn't make infrastructure an issue, and I'm just wondering if he was aware of it back then?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, he did in his energy -- no, no, no, take a look at his Saginaw speech on energy last September, and the President spoke extensively about infrastructure problems. And if you remember the gas spike hike that took place in the Midwest, some thought it may have been because of gouging. The Department of Justice took a look at it and concluded it was not because of gouging. It was created in substantial part because of transportation issues involving gas pipelines and infrastructure problems.
Q There were also some examples there, though, of maximizing profits. And what will this White House do in the next couple of months to make sure that none of that goes on?
MR. FLEISCHER: I've answered that question. The Department of Justice will remain vigilant to make certain there's no price gouging.
Q On gas prices -- I'm sorry, let me just see if we can close it. I'm intrigued by your, "that's a big no" answer to Terry's question, and the blessed American way of life. If Americans buying gas guzzling SUVs and using oil in the way they do leads to $3 a gallon gasoline, is the President going to say nothing about changing the way of life?
MR. FLEISCHER: Mark, I think when you take a look at the fact that SUVs have been on the market for 10 years, and that the price hike is going only on now, there was a time just five years ago where gas was available in Virginia, I remember, for 70 cents a gallon. So it's not the presence of SUVs that have caused the problem, it's a comprehensive problem that is caused not by that factor alone -- rising CAFE standards have helped in the past many years. But the problem comes from a fundamental imbalance between supply and demand.
Q Just to be clear, your "big no" means that he is not going to be suggesting changes in the way of life --
MR. FLEISCHER: The point I was making is that the President will focus on a series of initiatives that involve conservation, that involve increased production, that involve greater infrastructure building, to make certain that the energy can flow. The American way of life is something that needs to be protected as we enjoy our resources and we enjoy the American standard of living.
In the 1970s there was somewhat of an effort to make certain that Americans lowered their standard of living. The President does not think we need to do that. The President believes that America can enjoy a high standard of living as we address America's energy problems.
Q He will not be asking people to change the way they consume gasoline?
MR. FLEISCHER: There will be a focus in the plan on conservation, as I've indicated several times.
Q But, Ari, how does it lower the standard of living to drive a more fuel-efficient car?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it all depends on whether or not people will no longer be able to have access to the cars at the price they want to pay.
Q Ari, two parts -- my two. The Washington Post, page one, profile of Randy Weaver quotes him as saying of the McVeigh execution, "There should be a bunch of federal agents lying right beside him on the gurney." If the Post is going to publish without criticism of such defamation, don't federal agents deserve some expressed support from the Press Secretary to the head of all federal agents?
MR. FLEISCHER: I can't, of course, comment on anything that is printed. That's fair in our country --
Q You've commented many times on things that are printed.
MR. FLEISCHER: But on the question of the law enforcement and their role in our society, I was reminded on the day a shooting took place right in the first weeks of a new job here in this White House. I think everybody in this country owes a debt of gratitude to the men and women who every morning wake up and don't know if they're coming home from work. And they're very different from many other people, and our whole nation owes the law enforcement community a debt of gratitude.
Q Since the President strongly supports the death penalty for many who do not want to die or who might be innocent, will he also support death for those who, being terminally ill, yearn to die and ask for a physician's help in death, just as they do a physician's help in birth? And does he believe that Oregon and the Netherlands are wrong in so allowing it?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President believes that we need to welcome and create a culture that respects life in this country.
Q How can he be in favor of showing how much we disapprove of killing, by killing?
MR. FLEISCHER: You're referring to the death penalty?
Q I'm referring to the death penalty.
MR. FLEISCHER: Because the President's opinion is the death penalty ultimately saves lives. And if he was not convinced that it saved lives, if he was not convinced that it served as a deterrent to crime, than the President would not be --
Q Has he ever looked at the comparison of the death rate --
MR. FLEISCHER: You're up to three. (Laughter.)
Q -- of the murder rate in Chicago with the murder rate in Michigan, that has no death penalty?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think I've answered your question.
Q Quick question on Macedonia. The government there has launched a major -- a serious, major offensive against Albanian rebels. This happened right after President Trajkovski visited the White House. Did President Bush give a green light to this offensive against Albanian rebels?
MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, Terry, the escalation of the violence in Macedonia began prior to President Trajkovski's visit to the United States. And the President made clear in his remarks that he believed that the ultimate solution would be a political solution. That's what the President said to President Trajkovski when they met. But the President is very concerned about extremists operating in Macedonia who are threatening the peace in the region. And the President wants to make certain that President Trajkovski is able to focus his efforts on the extremists and protect the civilians.
Q And does the government of Macedonia then have the United States government's support in these most recent offenses against the rebels?
MR. FLEISCHER: As I just indicated, to the degree that the President supports the efforts of the government of Macedonia to fight the extremists who have brought the violence to the region, the President has made clear to President Trajkovski who, himself, said that he is dedicated to making certain that we can protect the civilians. But you do want to take a look at the chronology on that, because one of the biggest killings took place prior to his arriving here.
Q Do you believe what is happening in the last few hours in Macedonia is in an effort to crack down on the extremists, as you were talking about?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that the whole history of that region has been very difficult for people who are either in power, and the whole instability that has come from extremist actions in Macedonia and other places in the Balkans. And the President wants to make certain that Macedonia is able to take the action they need to combat a problem that has been created by the extremists.
Q You're talking about conservation, and I understand the President has a long-term policy on energy. But are you suggesting that there is something he will do about energy efficiency that will have some impact over the short- to medium-term?
MR. FLEISCHER: There have already been a series of announcements. I think the Department of Energy has announced a couple different programs that would affect conservation and affect efficiency. And in the report that you will see coming out soon, there will be passages in there dealing with efficiency. Efficiency is also a blessing. Efficiency has been a way the American people can enjoy their standard of living, their standard of life, while using less resources.
Q But this is -- but your sense is -- well, I mean, I know you don't want to talk about specifics, but your sense is, there will be something in there that will help the increasing demand for gasoline over the short term?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it all depends on how you argue the short-term. It depends on how significant measures can kick in. But I want to -- if conservation alone could solve all of America's energy problems, I think it's a given that the previous administration would have taken those steps. It's never that simple. It's never that easy. The President's report is going to be a well-rounded one that focuses on the whole mix of items that America needs to solve its energy problems.
Q There are states, though, where the gas tax has accrued beyond where it's paying for new roads, or it has accrued into the surplus. I mean, if we're giving money back to the people that is theirs in the first place, why not give this money back this summer --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course, as you know, the gas tax is collected by the federal government and there are complicated formulas that determine the exact amount that it goes back. It's not as if state governments can determine whether they are sender states or receiver states. It doesn't work that way.
Q On the Middle East, there has been some very extreme anti-Israeli -- in the past few days by Mrs. Arafat, which I cited last week, and by Asad of Syria. Are you discouraged by this? Do you have any response to the statements?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I answered your question last week about Mrs. Arafat. And the President, as he emphasized today in his meeting with the Amir of Bahrain, is determined to continue his efforts to bring about a peace in the Middle East. And his position will continue to be that of a facilitator, helping the parties come together so that peace can be achieved.
Q Does the White House want to give a response to Asad?
MR. FLEISCHER: On what, specifically?
Q About what he said -- statements last week?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President at all times urges all parties to engage in measured statements and measured tones so that peace can be achieved.
Q Can we get a readout on the President's meeting with the Amir of Bahrain and specifically whether Iraq sanctions -- a revision of the Iraq sanctions policy was discussed? And can you outline -- because Tariq Aziz of Iraq over the weekend warned his neighbors that if they go along with the new U.S. sanctions policy they will be cut out of the trade deal? And no one here seems to know what the sanction policy is.
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me see if we're going to have a readout on that. I don't have an update before I came out here. That was a two-part meeting, I was in the first part in the Oval. And then they went for lunch; I prepared for you. So I don't have a read on the second part of the meeting. But let me see if we're going to have a background briefing sometime later today.
Q And a quick second one. There is a report Harvey Pitt will be your new SEC chairman.
MR. FLEISCHER: Is there a question?
Q Do you want to confirm or deny the report? Or dodge it? (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: As you know, I don't confirm, deny or speculate on personnel announcements.
Q Ari, why did the United States resume surveillance flights off China yesterday?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not going to comment on any military operations other than to say that, as you know, right from the beginning, it has always been the position of the United States that it is our prerogative
and right to fly in international air space to preserve the peace by flying reconnaissance missions. But I'm not going to entertain any questions about any specific missions we may or may not have flown.
Q Ari, Prime Minister Sharon, in his comments on the Mitchell Report, said he has problems with accusations against the Israeli Army and that they have no basis. He also said he has problems with the freezing of settlements.
Now, in the light of the these statements -- also in the light of today, Iman (phonetic), a four-month infant has died, killed in a house in the occupied territories. Where do we go from here? Especially in light of the refusal -- settlement, of freezing settlements, which the Palestinians are demanding?
MR. FLEISCHER: The objective of the Mitchell Report was to work constructively with the parties and to provide an independent and objective review of the current crisis. In general, the United States believes that the Mitchell Committee's effort fulfills these objectives. The report presents and calm and a measured effort to provide constructive recommendations for consideration by all the parties involved.
I'm not going to get into any more specific elements in the report right now. As you know, under the process, it's not yet complete. It's still being shared with the parties involved, and the United States is receiving input back from the parties.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
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