Quayle's Pet Project Is Looking More Like A Liability

Things are looking up for Dan Quayle. With the unseemly departure of White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, the Vice-President has become the Administration's sole link to conservatives at a time when George Bush badly needs someone to calm the restive right. What's more, new staff chief Samuel K. Skinner is a Quayle golfing buddy who promises to pay more heed to the Veep's policy suggestions.

But before Quayle can bask in his role, he has to put out a brushfire in his backyard. He has used the chairmanship of the President's Council on Competitiveness to lash out at litigious lawyers and to stomp aggressive regulators. Unfortunately for Quayle, council Executive Director Allan B. Hubbard has given the panel's many enemies an opening to attack the legitimacy of the antiregulatory campaign.

Hubbard owns stock in chemical and utility companies that stand to benefit from his own recommendations that clean-air proposals be watered down. Democrats, including House health and environment subcommittee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), called hearings to see if Hubbard should have disqualified himself because of a conflict of interest.

The Administration's first instinct was to dismiss the questions as partisan sniping. "It's one of the oldest games in town," says Quayle spokesman Jeff Nesbit. "When you lose on policy, you go after the individual involved." And White House lawyers quickly declared Hubbard had done nothing wrong. But as the Democrats prepared to widen the attack, Hubbard announced that he was putting his assets into a blind trust and giving his 1,000 shares of PSI Resources Inc., a utility holding company, to charity.

Now that they've drawn blood, Democrats aren't about to quit. Senators, led by Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman John Glenn (D-Ohio), are demanding a full accounting of the council's activities. The Democrats' main beef is that the council is undermining the Clean Air Act and other environmental, health, and safety mandates from Congress. Critics contend that the panel has violated the law by acting in secret and by meeting improperly with business lobbyists. "We do not know if Mr. Hubbard has a conflict of interest becausewe do not know what the council is doing," grumbles Glenn.Up to now, the Competitiveness Council has been Quayle's main tool in his uphill struggle for political respectability. But until he finds a way to contain the controversy, Quayle may have to spend as much energy fending off the council's critics as he does keeping conservatives inside George Bush's tent.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.