Arsenic And Bad Beef

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What is it with republicans and school lunches? In 1981 Ronald Reagan looked both callous and politically ham-handed when he tried to save a few pennies on school lunches by classifying catsup as a vegetable. Last week the Bush Administration went beyond condiments, proposing to ax a Clinton Administration regulation that forces the meat industry to perform salmonella tests on hamburger served in school cafeterias. Given the heightened interest in the health of cattle right now, the move wasn't exactly well timed. The uproar forced Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman to drop the proposal the same day it hit the papers. She said a "low level" official had announced the change without consulting his superiors.

That explanation would be easier to swallow if it weren't for the many decisions pouring out of the Bush Administration that favor American business at the expense of American people. In his first 76 days, Bush declared that CO2 should not be regulated as a pollutant, and followed that up by abandoning the Kyoto global environmental accord, on the grounds that it lets developing nations off the hook. Bush substituted nothing for a framework that, however imperfect, took years to construct. EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman has no legs left to be cut out from under her. Then he shelved a Clinton regulation that tightened standards for arsenic in drinking water, arguing that more research is needed. While some people might be fuzzy about greenhouse gases, everyone gets the danger from arsenic--it's Murder, She Wrote territory--especially those who don't serve Evian at home. The symbolism of the move was breathtaking--especially after Bush and the G.O.P. Congress had denied workplace relief for millions (mostly women) who perform repetitive tasks. Employers thought it would cost too much.

Even the slightly scaled-down tax cut that passed the Senate last week delivers outsize benefits to people at the top of the economic heap to the detriment of those at the bottom, who may see their safety net fray as a consequence. No one quite knew how bad the spending cuts would be because Bush withheld the nasty details until he got his vote on taxes.

What happened to the compassion that was supposed to go with Bush's conservatism? The campaign prepared us for some of this--candidate Bush made plain his intention to drill in the Arctic wildlife refuge, not a bad political calculus given America's preference for suvs over caribou. But no one thought his team would choose slaughterhouses over schoolchildren, even if only for a day. What connects these decisions is a preference for folks he knows: his oil-field buddies (mirrors of himself), corporate executives and captains of industry, from the Halliburton honcho to the Terminix franchisee. Some of them contributed mightily to his campaign; all are "dynamic entrepreneurs," as he likes to say, who have made America great--despite laboring under a raft of pesky government regulations. They have his gratitude and his ear.

Bush's narrow focus didn't come through in the campaign. Last year he convinced people that compassion from a Republican was cleaner and better than the sloppy kind offered by Democrats. His genial nature made his vow to be a uniter, not a divider, credible despite flashes of poor sportsmanship (his tactics toward John McCain in South Carolina) and stubbornness (refusing to call McCain to concede Michigan). Since winning, he has reached socially across the aisle (Ted Kennedy for movies and popcorn, John Breaux to the ranch) and made fun of himself ("I hope one day I can clone another Dick Cheney. Then I won't have to do anything"). But the self-deprecation didn't quite mask his pleasure in making the presidency seem--for a while there--almost as easy as governing Texas. You can run the country 9 to 5, change policy off the cuff, turn the gritty work over to aides. But now, as it gets harder--with the Senate whittling his tax cut, the Chinese holding his spy plane--you can see him struggling to stick to a script written by others.

Salmonella showed that Bush knows there is a limit. You might get away with endangering the caribou, some fish going belly up, holes in the ozone layer and the safety net, even the prospect of no mail on Saturdays. But dangerous school lunches? In the end, Dubya knew better than to go there. He may also have second thoughts on arsenic. So many people are trying to climb aboard a bill to restore the arsenic restrictions that Representative Henry Waxman says he collected 165 co-sponsors in two days. Meanwhile, other industries are submitting their wish lists to Republicans. Lobbyists are asking for a relaxation of lead-contamination standards. You'd think we had put that issue to rest long ago. But Bush's Interior Secretary, Gale Norton, used to lobby Congress on behalf of lead-paint manufacturers.