Week in Review: Gas Prices, Iran, Iraq, Lobbying Bill

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Among the topics up for discussion this week are high gas prices in the United States, Iran's nuclear ambitions, challenges facing Iraq's new prime minister and a bill to change lobbying practices in Congress.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

CHARLES GRASSLEY: I would suggest to you that right now, every member of Congress is trying to do whatever he can, because of the outrageous $3 gas and the outrage coming from the public.

SIMON: Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, who's chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, speaking at an NPR News interview on Thursday.

NPR's senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us.

Dan, thanks for being with us.

DANIEL SCHORR: Sure, Scott. Delighted.

SIMON: And the price of gas is something that concerns Americans in the most direct way.

SCHORR: Indeed.

SIMON: It affects what they have to pay to and from work, what they have to pay to and from to get their children to school. It's certainly taken over the agenda in Congress this week. But in the end, how much power does Congress have to really affect the price at the pump?

SCHORR: Well, clearly not very much. They go for the usual suspects. They talk about windfall profits, but end up not doing anything about windfall profits. They come up with some kind of idea of rebating taxes to consumers. And then you have the President gets on the air and says, as he has said before, that we need more production. Obviously, you need more production than we are getting now. And where does he want to get more production from? You guessed it: from the wildlife refuge in the Alaska. That's it.

The oil industry gets tax breaks. The question has been raised whether they should stop the tax breaks. And I think that the oil companies are laughing all the way to the bank. Which, by the way, I think they have bought.

SIMON: Well, a lot of Americans are upset that at a time they're forced to pay higher tax at the pump, oil companies are making record profits.

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: But what are some of the factors that affect the price of oil?

SCHORR: The market will react to trouble in a country which produces a lot oil. Now, we take Iran as an example of that. When Iran has a big problem because of their nuclear development scheme, the market reacts by saying oh my, if there's a war against Iran that will cut out some oil. And so the market immediately puts that into its price calculation and the prices go up.

Then we also, I think, have lost some production from Katrina. Refineries are not all back there. There are probably a great many reasons for this crunch. But most of all, it is a supply crunch, not a demand crunch.

SIMON: Let's move on to Iran, because the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report on Friday, saying Iran has continued to enrich uranium in direct defiance of the U.N. Security Counsel. In the end, is the United Nations' Security Counsel prepared to take any action against Iran?

SCHORR: Well, the Security Counsel is its members. The United States is now consulting with Britain, France and Germany about what kind of resolution to introduce into the Security Counsel. But if you had a really tough resolution like sanctions against Iran, which I don't think is going to happen, and I think it's not going to happen because Russia and China, which right now is mad at President Bush anyway, that they would not go for it.

And so the result is that you have to come up with a resolution which sounds very, very mandatory towards Iran but doesn't do very much. Iran has said it doesn't care; it doesn't bother us. And I'm not quite sure we know what to do about that.

SIMON: Secretary of State Rice and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld made a surprise visit to Iraq this week.

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: And to show support for the new Prime Minister Designate, Nori al-Maliki. Mr. Maliki says he can form a national unity government in less than 30 days. I believe he even said he could do it in two weeks. Do you see other confidence, do you see that confidence reflected in the people around him?

SCHORR: Well, I think that they all have an idea of what it's going to take for this government to be able to get confidence around the country. I think Maliki has a big, big challenge, not a very romantic one, but he has to get the infrastructure working. He has to get electricity to people for more than a few hours a day. He has to weed a lot of rampant corruption. And he has to get rid of all these sectarian death squads. I mean, he has his work out there for him.

And I guess that's why two American cabinet secretaries went there to hold his hand and say we're with you all the way, Maliki. But he has to prove himself. I mean, who knows? He might do it. But he faces a big challenge.

SIMON: What kind of sign is it that the Ayatollah al-Sistani said this week that Iraq needs a government of technocrats, and said that the militia should be disbanded?

SCHORR: Yes. When we say technocrats, you mean you don't want to have a great deal of religion and politics playing a part in it, because if you do, then you set one against the other. Technocrats is what you get when you say we want a place to run, and we don't want people killing at each other. And whether he can get technocratic government remains to be seen.

SIMON: Hmm. Back in the U.S. Congress, lobbying reform is again being debated. The House voted 216 to 207 to advance a debate on their version of a lobbying overhaul bill.

SCHORR: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: There's seems, however, to be a lot of opposition to this bill. What other criticisms were among the critics?

SCHORR: Well, the big issue is whether they can do anything more than kind of gestures towards reform. The Republican bill, which is now apparently coming up for a vote next week, would not disturb the most corrupt elements of what goes into the lawmaking these days. And that is to say the practice of so-called earmarks, which is a way of in the night, dead of night when no one is looking, you tack on to some appropriation bill, say, $100 million, half a billion dollars or so...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

SCHORR: ...for something that you particularly want, your pet project, because you've promised some lobbyist to try to get it. I mean that is the guts of what corruption is, when you get laws being written by people for lobbyists. I don't see from what I've read of the resolution now before the House that is going to do very, very much to end that.

SIMON: This week President Bush chose a new press secretary this week to replace Scott McClelland, who resigned. And he chose Tony Snow. Mr. Snow, of course, has a program on the Fox Radio Network, longtime commentator on the Fox News Channel. Before that he was a columnist for a Detroit newspaper. Well known man, obviously, in media circles. But some people were surprised by this choice. What was your reaction?

SCHORR: Well, it was a little surprising because he has sometimes been quite critical of President Bush. He indicated that he doesn't have a great deal of respect for him. But to have picked someone who has a reputation of having said unfavorable things about you, I suppose, is a way of trying to win over public opinion. Perhaps the problem with McClelland, perhaps one of his problems was that he was so straight-laced, so right down the line. Whereas, I think, with Tony Snow you will get somewhat a lighter touch, I think. And who knows? He may succeed where McClelland failed.

SIMON: Thanks very much, Dan Schorr.

SCHORR: My pleasure.

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