Vice President and Mrs. Cheney's Remarks and Q&A at a Coffee with Community Leaders in Charleston, West Virginia
Charleston, West Virginia
10:58 A.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we're -- want to thank everybody for being here this morning. What we do at these events -- it's a chance just to sit down and have a conversation. I usually lead off with some thoughts, and then we open it put to questions. It's a little different than your basic conversation because the press are with us, of course. But we don't hold that against them. But you just need to know whatever you say is going to be broadcast or recorded, so I like to warn people when they're on the record. It's a cautionary note that some of my colleagues in the Congress and government often forget at their peril.
But what I thought I might do this morning is I want to talk a little bit about -- specifically about the war on terror because I think that's so important in terms of the decisions we're going to make as a nation going forward, and the decision we're going to make on November 2nd when we pick our Commander-in-Chief, in effect, for the next four years. But I don't want to restrict the conversation to that. By focusing on that at the outset, I don't mean to discourage discussion about other issues. There are a lot of things we could talk about obviously in West Virginia and all across the country. And we usually get into a lot of other issues, health care, or energy, or the economy, or so many -- education, so many other issues that are out there that we're talking about, debating this year. But let me begin, first of all, by talking about, as I say, where I think we are on the war on terror.
I think you can look back in American history and find there have been certain times when we were confronted with new threats, and we had to sort of reorganize our thinking, and our approach to national security issues. Think about the period right after World War II, after we'd won a tremendous victory in Europe and the Pacific, and then suddenly were faced with the Cold War, and the specter of the Soviet Union that was nuclear-armed, that had occupied half of Europe, and that was a major global threat to the United States. And we had to put in place a brand new strategy, which we did in the late '40s and early '50s. We created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. We created the Department of Defense, and the Central Intelligence Agency, and reorganized our military, and so forth -- put in place a strategy that worked for about the next 40 years, that was supported by Republican and Democratic administration alike, right through until the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Now, I think as a result of 9/11, we're again in one of those periods when we need to put together -- and have put together -- a new national security strategy going forward to defend against that new threat, that the strategies that we had for the Cold War don't really work when you talk about al Qaeda, the kind of threat that we're faced with now.
What we learned coming out of 9/11 is that we're very vulnerable because we are an open society. It's one of our great strengths, the free movement of goods and ideas and people back and forth across international borders, and a society that values to the maximum extent possible individual freedom and liberty and the fewest restraints possible, that that -- all of those are strengths as a society, but they also obviously are potential vulnerabilities from the standpoint of terrorists that we experience on 9/11.
We learned on that date, the worst attack ever on American soil, we lost more people that day than we lost at Pearl Harbor, that the terrorists were also seriously interested in trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction, to get their hands on deadlier weapons to use against us -- and whether that was chemical or a biological agent, or even a nuclear weapon; and that the ultimate threat we face today is the possibility of terrorists in the midst of one of our own cities with that kind of deadly capability that would threaten the lives not just of a few thousands of us, but hundreds of thousands of Americans. And that's what we have to be prepared to defeat and to guard against.
The President made some very important decisions in the -- on 9/11 itself and in the immediate aftermath. Obviously, we moved aggressively to strengthen our defenses here at home. We created the Department of Homeland Security, passed the Patriot Act that gave law enforcement additional tools to be able to prosecute potential terrorists; went after and created a thing called Project BioShield that allows the FDA and the National Institutes of Health to do a better job of developing defenses against a possible attack with biological weapons, a series of steps that I think most people are familiar with that make the U.S. a much tougher target than we were prior to 9/11.
But we also made another decision, and that was that there's no such thing as a perfect defense, that given the nature of the threat, you could be right 99 times out of a hundred, or 999 out of a thousand, that one chance that they could get through with that kind of devastating attacks means that you cannot rely just on defense and call it a day. You can't retreat behind our oceans -- they would put up the barriers and they can't get at us because we know they're out there trying. And we know they're trying hard to get their hands on deadlier weapons, and that sooner or later if all we do is rely on defense, they may well get through.
So the President made the decision that we also have to go on offense, which I think is absolutely the right decision. But that meant to use the full power of the United States to go after the terrorists wherever they reside, wherever we can find them planning, plotting training, getting organized. It also meant -- and this was a major departure -- that we would use the force of the United States to confront and hold to account those who supported terror, the states that sponsored terror that provided a sanctuary or safe harbor for the terrorists, provided them with training or weapons or finances would be held accountable for the actions of the terrorists just as the terrorists themselves would be held accountable. That was a major new departure. But I think absolutely the right decision.
Based on that set of propositions, we obviously then moved into Afghanistan, took down the Taliban, closed the training camps. There were camps there that had trained an estimated 20,000 terrorists in the late '90s -- some of whom had attacked the U.S. on 9/11; some of whom have since attacked elsewhere around the world. We also captured and killed hundreds of al Qaeda, and are now in the business of standing up a new government to replace the old one we took down. That's a very important sort of fourth step, if you will. And it's absolutely essential after we've done what we had to do in Afghanistan -- to close down the training camps and go after al Qaeda and the folks that hit us on 9/11, that you can't just turn your back and walk away. You've got to put something in its place, otherwise all you'll have is a failed state that will soon again become a breeding ground for terror.
And so we've moved aggressively to stand up a democratically elected government in Afghanistan. And we're making significant progress -- a lot hand-wringing along the way. There were a lot of people, including John Edwards, the guy who is my opponent six months after we went into Afghanistan was saying, well, it has all turned to chaos, that the Taliban are back in control, this is never going to work. That was two-and-a-half years ago. Well, it is working. We registered 10 million Afghans, almost half of them women. And a week ago Saturday, for the first time in the 5,000-year history of Afghanistan, there were free nationwide elections. They've got a constitution they've written. They've got an interim President in Hamid Karzai. They're counting the votes now. By the end of the year, there will be a democratically elected government in Afghanistan for the first time in history, and the world will be safer for it. It's a major accomplishment. There's still a lot of work to be done. Nobody should assume that it's all going to go smoothly, or that there won't be hard days ahead. There will be. The terrorists, the Taliban, the al Qaeda know if we're successful in establishing a democratically elected government in Afghanistan, their day is over in Afghanistan. But we're making significant progress.
The other thing we're doing is standing up, training an Afghan national army that will be able to provide for their own security. And once that's done, then we can obviously reduce our own role in Afghanistan. And we don't want to stay any longer than is absolutely necessary, but we want to stay long enough to get the job done.
If you move on over to Iraq now and look at that, a somewhat different set of circumstances, but still a situation in which we had in Saddam Hussein a man who'd started two wars previously, a man who had produced and used chemical weapons against his own people and against the Iranians and had other robust WMD programs, obviously, back at the time of the Gulf War, a man who had traditionally been a sponsor of terror. Iraq has been carried on the State Department's state sponsor of terror list for 15 years. He provided a home to Abu Nidal, to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He made $25,000 payments to the families of suicide bombers who would kill Israelis, had a relationship with al Qaeda. You can go look at testimony by George Tenet, director of the CIA, two years ago before the Senate foreign relations committee in open session where he talks about a 10-year relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.
After we took down the government there, obviously, which we accomplished I think in good order, we're now in the midst of standing up a democratically elected government in place of the old Saddam Hussein regime. Hard thing to do. I don't want to underestimate how difficult this is, but it's absolutely essential that we do it. We now have an Iraqi government in place, an interim government that took over in June. We've got the National Council has been established and assembled for the first time. They're going to have elections in January. The group elected in January will write a constitution, and there will be a democratically elected government in place, in Iraq hopefully by the end of next year. As I say, January is the target for the first round of elections -- very, very important that we complete that task.
And we're also, at the same time in Iraq, working aggressively to stand up armed forces, police, border patrol, all of the security elements you need to guarantee the security of the nation. And that effort will have in place by the end of January -- the target is to have 145,000 trained and armed Iraqis, continue to build that through the course of next year so that they can get into the fight and increasingly take on more responsibility for themselves. And they are in the fight now. They are actively involved all around the country, side-by-side with our forces in many places.
That's the ultimate objective. That's the strategy we've got to pursue we believe. And we're confident that if we can accomplish what we've set out to accomplish in Afghanistan and Iraq, that it will fundamentally transform that part of the world, demonstrate clearly that there's an alternative to the oppression and the extremism, if you will, and the dictatorships that have oftentimes governed in that part of the world in the past, and been so much of a problem for us. And it's essential we get it done so that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan ever again becomes a breeding ground for terror, or a place where people develop and use weapons of mass destruction.
Iraq was of special concern because again remembering back to what we think is the biggest threat we now face, the terrorist armed with a deadly weapon in the middle of one of our cities, Iraq was the place where there was most likely to be a nexus, if you will, between the terrorists on the one hand and WMD on the other -- because of the history of the regime of Saddam Hussein, and because of what we'd seen happen there over the years past.
Now, one other point that needs to be mentioned, with respect to the scale of the problem we're addressing here. This is not just a problem for the United States. Obviously, we aren't the only ones who have been hit. And you think of all of the cities that have been attacked since 9/11 -- you look at Madrid, and Casablanca, and Mombassa in East Africa, and Riyadh, and Istanbul, and Jakarta, and Bali, and Jakarta again, and Beslan in Southern Russia -- all of these attacks with some kind of al Qaeda connection. It's a loose amorphous organization. It's not a strong hierarchy, but what happened -- what has happened over the years is that the al Qaeda has reached out to say, Indonesia, to give you a good example. And in Indonesia there was an Islamic fundamentalist group that had aspirations of taking down their government, some of them were recruited, sent to Afghanistan, went through the training camps in Afghanistan. A man named Hambali, in particular, went through all of that. He then was given a sum of money, and he went back to Indonesia where he then organized the attacks on the Marriott hotel in Jakarta, and on the resort out at Bali where they killed some 200 Australians. He travels under the name of -- Jemaah Islamiya is the name of his organization, not al Qaeda. But it's an al Qaeda affiliate. It's almost like a franchise operation. And that's the kind of situation we're having to deal with on a worldwide basis. Al Qaeda means the base in Arabic. That's what it stands for.
But the nature of the threat, that it is a global threat is something that cannot be denied. It's also important for us to recognize that this is a war. It's not a police action. It's not a law enforcement problem. That's how we used to look at these things. It's far more serious than that, and it requires the full commitment of the resources of the United States to be able to win. And I think it requires the kind of strong leadership that George Bush has provided to be able to pull that.
The question on November 2nd, before the house is, is George Bush the right man to take us forward for four more years, or is John Kerry the guy? And of course, I have strong feelings on the subject. (Laughter.) But I think it's important to look at John Kerry's record in this regard because he obviously is out there campaigning saying, I'm tough. I'll crush the terrorists. When he went to Boston, he got up to the podium and said, reporting for duty and saluted smartly. We're not questioning his patriotism. That's not the issue here. The question is whether or not based on his record of public service, and the positions he's taken on key issues over the years that relate to the use of force and national security, national defense, based on how he's handled these issues as a senator, what could we expect of him now if he were to become the Commander-in-Chief?
And the thing I'm concerned about is I don't think there's anything in his record that leads me to have any confidence that he could do what needs to be done in terms of actively and aggressively pursuing the war on terror and staying on offense. I look at everything from -- well, when he ran for Congress the first time in the '70s, he said the U.S. should only deploy forces under the authorization of the United Nations. 1984, when he ran for the Senate the first time, he ran on a platform of cutting or eliminating most of the major weapons systems that President Reagan had put together that were key to our support and victory in the Cold War.
In 1993, after the first bombing of the World Trade Center, when he was on the Senate intelligence committee, it looks as best we can tell as though he didn't attend any meeting of the Senate intelligence committee. And the year after the center -- the World Trade Center was hit, and he did put forward an amendment recommending cutting billions out of the intelligence budget. And it was so extreme that even Ted Kennedy wouldn't support it. There's a long track record there. You come down to 19991, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, was poised to dominate the Persian Gulf, when the Congress of the United States voted to authorize former President Bush to use force, to expel the Iraqis from Kuwait when we put together a coalition of 34 nations. We had the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Everything that Kerry supposedly, you would think would want when talks about there having to be some kind of global test before you use the U.S. forces, it was all there, and he voted no. He was against going in the first time to get rid of Saddam Hussein's presence in Kuwait. He voted against Desert Storm.
It's a long track record that always consistently, I think, comes down on the wrong side of that issue. Most recently, he was quoted in The New York Times a week ago Sunday, in an interview he did with a Times reporter who has been covering on the road, and sort of asked about what his aspirations were in connection with the war on terror. And he said, well, he hoped to be able to take it back to where terrorism was only a nuisance, where it could be thought of and dealt with -- and he used the analogy the way we deal with illegal gambling or prostitution -- it was a problem to be managed at some acceptable level was what was implied in his statement.
And I asked myself when I read that, I said, well, when was terrorism ever just a nuisance? Certainly, you'd go back prior to 9/11 and ask, well, what about four years ago when the USS Cole was hit, off Yemen, and we lost 17 sailors, they nearly sunk the ship? Or six years ago when they hit simultaneously two of our embassies in East Africa within minutes of each other, killed hundreds of people, including a number of Americans? Or maybe it was back in the 1993, the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York, killed six or seven, but wounded a thousand, tried to take down a Trade Tower that day and failed? Or maybe it was 1988, when Flight Pan Am 103 went down over Lockerbie, Scotland after it was blown out of the skies? Or maybe 1983, in Beirut when that spring, they first blew up our embassy and then later that fall a suicide bomber in a truck bomb drove into the ground floor of the hotel where we had our Marines barracked, and killed 241?
Now, none of those strike me as fitting the criteria of being a nuisance. There has never been a time when we could think about terror as a nuisance, and what has happened over the years, as we've dealt with it primarily as -- strictly a law enforcement problem -- we can go out and round up individuals and prosecute them and put them in jail, when we didn't think of it as being at war, basically what the terrorists did was learn that they could strike us with relative impunity, and secondly that they could change our policy because they did on a couple of occasions -- Mogadishu, 1993, when we lost 19 soldiers in the battle there, and within weeks, we pulled totally out of Somalia; or even Beirut, 1983, after the bombing of the Marine barracks, within months, we'd totally withdrawn from Lebanon. So they could force us to do what they wanted to do through the application of terror and intimidation, and by killing oftentimes innocent men, women, and children -- sometimes military personnel.
I don't think it makes any sense if you're serious about prosecuting the war on terror, if you're serious about defending the nation, if you believe as I do and the President that the best defense is a good offense, that you've got to go on offense and go after them over there where they plot and train and plan so we don't have to fight them here at home. Unless you've got that -- sort of got your mind wrapped around those propositions, and believe, as we do, that it's far better to deal with this threat now than it is to try to postpone it or hope it goes away, that over time it may fade, it won't fade. We've seen it steadily grow in severity to the point where we lost 3,000 Americans on 9/11. And time will only accrue to the benefit of the terrorists. They'll gather strength. They'll develop more deadly capabilities, maybe get their hands on a biological agent or a nuclear weapon. So the way to deal with it is to deal with it, and to deal with it aggressively, and to use the full force and might of the United States to do that. And that's what we're doing. (Applause.)
Now, always -- it's important, I think, always to point out that the President obviously has, I think, been exactly what we needed during this period of time, in terms of his steadfastness, and his leadership, and the way he's dealt with a very, very difficult set of circumstances. But I also want to say that none of what we've done would have been possible without the magnificent performance of the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces. They've just done a tremendous job for all of us.
But with that, I'll stop. (Laughter.) I've rambled on long enough. But we'd be happy to take your questions, and Lynne will be happy to chime in every once in a while, I'm sure -- (Laughter.) So don't be bashful about asking her, as well, too. But again, thank you all for being here this morning. And as I say, that decision on November 2nd is about as important as any I've ever been involved in, and we are picking a Commander-in-Chief and someone who is going to see us not just through the next four years, but I think help lay the groundwork for that strategy that we've already put in place out there, with the kind of set of decisions and propositions that will guide U.S. foreign policy and defense policy maybe for the next 40 or 50 years. It's that important.
CONGRESSWOMAN MOORE CAPITO: Well, thank you. Do you have a question?
Q: This is just a total departure from what -- I guess the focus of our discussion today. But like I said earlier when I introduced myself, I am not only a local businessman, but I'm a farmer, I'm a sportsman, and I also volunteer for Ducks Unlimited. And I would personally like to thank you and the President both for your efforts that you've made toward the wetlands conservation, or toward wetlands conservation, especially the improvements that you've made in the conservation provisions of the last farm bill. And I would be curious as to what your thoughts are on the 2007 farm bill and how it will affect both farmers and current land enrollments in both CRP and WRP.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, the current statute expires I believe in -- '07 I think is when we have to renew it. And it's always a battle royal, without question. A major decision is to be made, and it will depend a lot, clearly, on what happens with respect to the farm economy over the course of the next three years before we get there. It will also depend a lot I think on the assessment people make of how the current bill is worked. Are there needs -- are there areas where we need to tweak it, where we need to improve it?
My general impression is it has worked pretty well, that farm income across the country is up, in many areas at an all-time record high. The farm economy is a very important part of our total economy. But I think that's a part of the economy that, on balance, has worked very, very well.
We've got to look at, I suppose, individual crops and individual provisions and see whether or not adjustments need to be made. But at this point, I'm not aware that anybody has suggested any radical changes in terms of moving off that legislation. It's important that we continue -- we got to stay focused on the trade side of things, too, with respect to agriculture, because I think one of every three acres in the United States is -- we produce for export. And our agriculture is so productive that we need to be able to sell a lot of that stuff overseas, and that's what we've been doing, especially with China and WTO and so forth and so on.
I'm optimistic that we'll be able to renew the Farm Act. As I say, there may be some changes -- I'm not aware of any right now that anybody is pitching or pushing.
Q: I'm a legislative coordinator with West Virginia's Right for Life. I welcome you to West Virginia, and let you know, and the President know, that my family, as well as a lot of families across the state pray for you daily for wisdom and for your protection. And we're very proud of the job that you've been doing. Both of you have been doing a fabulous job and I'm very proud of you. But as a pro-lifer, of course, one of the things that I'm concerned about is the federal court system. In 1996, West Virginia passed a ban on partial birth abortions here overwhelmingly, with about 98 percent of our legislature voting for that. Of course, that was struck down by the United States Supreme Court. Of course, the President signed the federal ban and that is through the court system now. And I know that the Democrats in the Senate have kind of stymied your judicial appointments, and I wondered what you think the prospects are in the next administration of having some of the President's judicial appointees confirmed.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we -- with respect to the courts, we've done fairly well at the federal district level. Where we've run into a problem is with respect to appointments to the circuit courts. And what the Democrats have done is, in effect, for the first time ever mounted a filibuster as a major strategy and applied it to nominations for the federal bench. And I would expect that they'll continue to try to do that. What it means is we've got to have 60 votes to be able to confirm some of those judges.
They've blocked some good ones. I think of a good friend of mine, Bill Myers from Wyoming, who is an eminently well-qualified lawyer. He used to work for Al Simpson, senator from Wyoming, a lot of people remember -- a very talented and capable man who was appointed to the Ninth Circuit on the West Coast and who's been blocked by the filibuster. The Ninth Circuit is the one that handed down the ruling saying that we should not be allowed to say "under God" when we pledge allegiance. A lot of people thought that was an outrageous decision -- so did I -- which leads me to believe that that circuit could use some new judges. (Laughter.) But they -- Bill Myers is a classic example of that. But there have been others. Janice Rogers Brown, who is a member of the California Supreme Court, first African American woman appointed to the California Supreme Court, nominated by the President for the Circuit Court of Appeals, filibustered and blocked by the Democrats in the Senate. There's a long list.
The best thing we can do, frankly, is to elect more Democrats to the United States -- or elect more Republicans to replace Democrats. (Laughter.) And we're working hard on that this year. I've been out spending a lot of time, and I -- it is important that the Senate perform its constitutional responsibility. And we've got, as I say, good nominees that are deemed well qualified by the bar, that have 54, 55, 56 votes for confirmation, which would clearly pass them under normal circumstances, but their use -- resort to the filibuster has, in fact, blocked some very talented and able people. And we just have to keep working at it and pushing hard on them.
Q: Thank you, sir, for taking my question. I have a concern with the rising cost of college tuition. I think in our state, state-supported schools, tuition went up 3 percent this past year, again. And as the states lose money, or don't have the money, tuition goes higher. And I'd like to know what the President's plan is to help working families in America with the rising cost of college tuition?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, there has been a lot of effort at the federal level in terms of trying to improve the situation to help folks finance college education. I'm a product of the state university in Wyoming, and I was -- I went in the day when tuition was so cheap you could work your way through, it was 96 bucks a semester or something. (Laughter.) But I was only making --
MRS. CHENEY: That long ago, huh? (Laughter.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: But I was only making about a buck and a quarter an hour, so -- but some of the things the President has done, we've moved aggressively, for example, on the whole Pell grant program. We've added -- gone from about 4 million people eligible to participate in that to about 5 million now. We've increased the amount of the individual grant by some $300 a year to try to help offset the rising cost of colleges out there, as well, too.
The President also came up with another idea that we've got out there that will allow an extra -- leave an extra thousand dollars a year for students -- low-income students who take accelerated courses in high school to prepare themselves for college, an incentive for people to take advantage of that. So there's a lot of effort underway to deal with that, and obviously, we try to deal with it, as well, through tax cuts -- when they go across the board with rate reductions, allow people to keep more of what they earn, so they can spend it as they see fit, rather than send it off to Washington.
Finally, we are pushing the concept of what's called lifetime savings accounts, allow people to save tax-free for various and sundry purposes, one of which would be education. They'd be able to set money aside and it would accrue money -- accrue value tax-free and could be taken out for those purposes to pay for education, college education -- so a number of ways we are trying to help. We recognize the enormous importance -- if you look at the -- I saw a study the other day that showed that some 83 percent of the fastest growing areas for new jobs in the country in terms of economic types of activities, about 83 percent of them require some training beyond high school. And you just -- if you're going to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities that this nation has, and if we're going to have the kind of work force that will guarantee we'll stay number one in the world in terms of our economic performance, and being able to create and fill good jobs here at home, then education training is absolutely the heart of it -- and not just from K through 12, obviously, but beyond high school.
MRS. CHENEY: Could I just add one thing? Which is a lot of the high cost of college reflects the lack of fairness, it's -- so many kids now don't get through in four years because they have to spend time taking remedial courses that first year --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Be careful what you say now about -- (Laughter.)
MRS. CHENEY: But the President's plan to take the idea of accountability, high standards from elementary school to high school, which he plans to do in the next four years -- I think No Child Left Behind is already showing that it's an effective plan for improving -- making our elementary schools the best in the world. Moving forward with that to high school, I think will help with the college crisis because it will give kids
the preparation they need to go to college so they don't have to spend their first year taking remedial math, their first year there taking remedial English. That has reached crisis proportions around the country: kids going to college who really aren't prepared as well as they should have been by the secondary school system. So that's another one.
CONGRESSWOMAN MOORE CAPITO: Excellent, excellent point. Thank you.
Q: I just want to say it's a real honor to meet you and be able to ask you a question. Something that is affecting everyone is high gas prices, and my question is concerning the President's energy plan -- twofold: can you explain how West Virginia coal fits into the administration's energy plan; and also what are the prospects of that being passed and actually to get that going?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, the energy area is one that needs to be addressed. We've been working on it since, well, the first week we were in office, back when we had rolling brownout in California, and serious problems both in terms of natural gas prices, as well as concerns about the availability of petroleum and petroleum products and so forth.
The President had me put together a task force of administration officials. We put together a report, had 106 different recommendations in it. And we went forward with those that we could move administratively, and then we introduced legislation into the Congress that was designed to deal with the rest of it. And that legislation now has gotten through the House at least twice, and been blocked in the Senate. The last time around having passed the House in the form of a conference agreement, gone back to the Senate -- we had the 58 votes, but again it was filibustered, came up two votes short -- and two of those votes were John Kerry and John Edwards who didn't show up that day. I'm not sure if they had, they'd have voted with it anyway. But in terms of the -- of what needs to be done, you start with the principle that you absolutely have to have to access to affordable energy, and abundant supplies of it to run an economy like ours. And we're far more efficient consumers of energy than we used to be. You can look at the amount of energy we consume per unit of output in our economy, and it has gone down steadily over the years because we've gotten to be a lot more efficient in terms of how we use it. But you still need to produce more energy for a growing, booming economy.
And coal is extraordinarily important because it accounts for over half of our electric generating capacity in this country. One of the problems -- remember the President has taken some heat for saying he wouldn't support the Kyoto treaty -- the Kyoto treaty was going to establish mandatory caps on certain types of emissions on global basis. If it had been put in place, it was estimated by the Wharton School up in Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia that it would have pretty well shut down all coal-burning facilities in the U.S. by the year 2020. There's a little problem if you're going to shut down, for example, all your electric generating capacity. It makes no sense at all. It would have cost as much as $400 billion a year out of our economy, the estimates of the Energy Information Administration of DOE; and about 4.9 million jobs. Wrong way to go. We think it's much more effective to rely on technology to find ways to deal with our environmental problems. The President has funded -- made a very hefty commitment to clean coal technology. Shelley has been heavily involved in that. She's one of the big advocates of it. And we have spent about $1.4 billion, I think, already during the three years we've been here to find ways to burn coal more cleanly so that you don't have any environmental consequences. And we're making significant progress.
We've, in fact, if you look at our total -- another set of statistics for you, over the last 20 years, if you look at the emissions of the six main pollutants that people are concerned about, over the last 20-year period of time, we've cut those emissions by about 50 percent, at the same time the economy has grown by 164 percent. It just gives you another example the extent to which we're doing it better and smarter and wiser all the time.
In terms of our natural gas, there's an area there that we badly need more natural gas supplied to this country. It is in great demand as a fuel for generating electricity as well as a lot of other purposes, too. It's a basic feedstock for chemicals industry. Natural gas now costs about $6 to $7 per MCF, per thousand cubic feet, and we don't have enough of it. One of the things our energy bill does is to authorize and provide some loan guarantees to build a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope of Alaska down to the Lower 48. There's already a pipeline from the North Slope to the Lower 48 -- well, to Valdez, moving oil. And this would be a parallel line that would be for natural gas. We produce vast quantities of natural gas up there on the North Slope. It comes out of the ground with the oil we're pumping anyway, but we have to re-inject it back into the ground because there's no way to get it to market. Well, this is one way to get it to market to the Lower 48, where we could use it.
With respect to gasoline and petroleum products, the problem we've got there is that we're at maximum capacity in terms of our refineries. We haven't built a new refinery in this country in close to 30 years. One way to deal with that -- people don't build refineries because it's so hard to get the permits to do so. One way to deal with that is the new source review regulations at EPA. And we've put in place new regulations. They're now challenged in court. That's going to have to be fought out in the courts. It will make it easier to expand existing refineries to add to capacity there, as well, too. But when you're running flat-out at 98 percent, 99 percent capacity, and you're not building any new refineries and demand is going up, and you end up having to import more and more of you product, and we're more and more dependent on foreign sources. And that means we're right up against with respect to price. There's -- we estimate -- a million barrels a day on -- in ANWR, and the North Slope of Alaska that we -- again, we got it through the House, couldn't get it through the Senate. So we'll keep pushing. It's going to be a priority for us in the second term. A couple more votes in the Senate would spring loose, I think, a very important piece of energy legislation. There's a lot more renewable sources of energy. Ethanol and biodiesel, R&D on hydrogen fuels and so forth, new technologies -- we need to do it all to make sure we've got adequate supplies of energy over the long haul.
CONGRESSWOMAN MOORE CAPITO: Well, I'm getting the high sign that we have time for one more question. But if we get two quick ones, but I have four people --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I'll give short answers, I'll give short answers.
Q: Okay, my quick one -- I won't go to my other one then, can you give us some of your folks' plans on Social Security? I'm in that realm at the moment.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, we're at the point -- this happens in every election I've been in since 1978. It was the first time I ran for Congress and I did that six times, and then I've been involved in -- I was involved in President Ford's presidential campaign before that, and a couple of presidential campaigns since. When we get about to this stage of the campaign, our opponents, as they are now, start to say, oh, the Republicans are going to do something to --
Q: They'll steal Social Security.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Exactly. It's an age-old cry. It's usually a good sign when it happens because it means they're behind. (Laughter.) And so they start -- with all due respect, I think John Kerry has proven pretty decisively that he'll say virtually anything to get elected. And the latest in the last couple of days is this notion that somehow we're going to do something damaging to Social Security. Absolutely not true. The President made it very clear, we all have, that Social Security is in good shape for the generation currently receiving Social Security benefits. The funds are there to cover them. For those who expect to retire in the not-too-distant future, it's in good shape for them. The folks that we need to worry about are my kids in their 30s, and people younger than that, who have got legitimate questions about whether or not there will anything left of the Social Security trust fund when they get to point where they're eligible for retirement benefits. And there is a problem down the road in terms of need to deal with what will be a gap between the benefits that have been promised, and we know how many people are going to retire, and how much money is going to be in the fund.
What the President has talked about doing, and we think it makes good sense is to offer an operation to that younger generation -- it wouldn't have any effect on those currently drawing benefits, or those expecting to draw benefits in the not-too-distant future, but for somebody in their 20s, to give them to option of saying, if you want -- you don't have to -- but if you want, you'd be allowed to take a portion of your payroll tax and invest in a personal retirement account.
Q: On your own.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: On your own. It would have to be approve, obviously. But you could earn a higher rate of return than you'll get through the Social Security system. It's one way to help begin to close the income gap, if you will, on the revenue gap between what is being collected and what will have to be paid out 40, 50 years down the road. But it also gives the individual more control over their own lives. It's their -- becomes their personal retirement account, just like a 401k, in effect. And we think it has merit. It's just an idea at this point. But it's one of those things that we think we need to begin to address and think about innovative ways of dealing with this problem. Because it will have a big impact, as I say, on the 20-somethings. But none of this is going to have any impact at all, nor does anybody who is currently drawing Social Security benefits, or planning on drawing Social Security benefits need to have any concern that somehow somebody is going to do something to damage the Social Security system. Ain't going to happen.
CONGRESSWOMAN MOORE CAPITO: It's up to you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, let's do one more.
Q: Thanks for involving all of us. Two questions, one it's unfortunate that we have a big shortage of the flu vaccine, but how are we going to make it affordable to get the antiviral for the elderly?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, the problem we've run into is producing vaccine is not a very profitable business. We're down now, I guess, to two producers. And it's a combination of the economics of the business. You can produce millions of doses, but if people don't take it, then you have to throw it out because it's only good for one year, and then it has to be renewed, so it's not necessarily a very profitable business for companies to be in.
The other big problem we've got, frankly, is liability concerns. And again we've tried to get approval through the Congress. Shelley has been involved with some of this -- we got it through the House, as I recall; we didn't get it through the Senate -- that would have capped non-economic damages, the medical liability system that would also, as I recall, have protected manufacturers of vaccine against excessive punitive damage awards if the FDA had approved the vaccine. And that failed in the Senate, and it was opposed by Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards. You come back to this area, in particular, we obviously are going to have to spend -- I think deal with medical liability reform before we'll find people willing to step up and take the risk of producing these kinds of products for the U.S. market. And it affects not only medicine.
The other day I was in northern Minnesota -- there's a company there didn't even exist 20 years ago. And this start-up -- two brothers started the company. It's now the second biggest producer of piston-driven airplanes in the United States, got 900 employees, great company, very successful. He said if it weren't for what he was having to pay in product liability insurance because of the threat of the trial lawyers, he could hire another 200 people. But that's the litigation cost that, in effect, is built into his business, that is getting siphoned off.
And of course, in the much broader area of medicine, and the OB/GYN -- I just got a letter the other day.
CONGRESSWOMAN MOORE CAPITO: Her husband is an OB/GYN.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Then you know all the problems. I'm not telling you anything you don't know about. I think we've lost one out of four OB/GYN in my home state of Wyoming because of the cost, the rising cost of malpractice insurance. People in parts of the state now have to drive a hundred miles over to South Dakota to find a doctor who can provide adequate care when they're expecting a child. The main insurers have pulled out because it has just gotten too expensive for them to provide it -- can't get new docs to come into the state, and the ones that are there are having a tough time staying in business given what has happened because in Wyoming, at least up until now, there's a provision on the ballot in November, but until now hasn't been willing to cap and reform the trial lawyer -- the tort system, the medical malpractice system. So it's a big priority for us. We've gotten it through the House, not yet through the Senate, but we'll keep pushing it. Again, it's one of those areas where given John Edwards background, and John Kerry's past voting record, you're not going to see serious medical liability reform as long as the two of them are in business.
CONGRESSWOMAN MOORE CAPITO: Well, thank you, Mrs. Cheney, and Mr. Vice President. And to Rita and James, next time you guys next to ask the first question. I apologize that we didn't get to your questions. But I can't thank you enough for coming and giving us the intimacy of being able to ask you any question we would care to, and for your frankness in your answers.
We're so very proud of you and your service. I, as somebody who campaigns quite a bit, I'm amazed at your energy level. I don't know how you do it. But I appreciate it, and I know it's a sacrifice for you as a family. And I want you to know, as West Virginians, that we truly, truly appreciate it.
So thank you. (Applause.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: We appreciate that very much, Shelley. And we very much look forward to having West Virginia once again in the Bush-Cheney column. (Applause.)
END 11:42 A.M. EDT
Richard B. Cheney, Vice President and Mrs. Cheney's Remarks and Q&A at a Coffee with Community Leaders in Charleston, West Virginia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/280955