WASHINGTON — George W. Bush is off to a good and fast start. In his first days as U.S. president, he has begun to soften his relationships with his adversaries, organize his control over the vast bureaucracy of the federal government, initiate innovative programs and promote his promised legislative initiatives. And he has done so in a pleasant, non-confrontational manner, entertaining the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, members of the Kennedy family and the Congressional Black Caucus.
The wheels churned slowly to put the new government in place but by last week the Senate confirmed the entire Bush Cabinet. The most controversial nominee, John Ashcroft for attorney general, was confirmed by a margin of 58 to 42 votes. The Democrats wanted to make a bit of a show and did. They got more than 40 votes, the number needed to end a filibuster, meaning that they could have delayed the nomination indefinitely if they had wanted to.
Ashcroft, a big negative symbol to many Democratic support groups, did not help himself during his hearings. But since he was sure of at least one Democrat vote, that of Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan, who defeated him last November, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle was anxious to top the 40-vote mark to send a signal — and he did.
Filling the government takes time. Prospective officials must be vetted by the FBI and other security agencies. When Secretary of State Colin Powell met Jan. 26 with his Japanese counterpart, Foreign Affairs Minister Yohei Kono, the staff aides who joined the lunch were all holdovers from the Clinton era. Powell was the only Bush State Department official confirmed at the time. And so it goes through the departments. The government is being run by career civil servants and by holdover appointees on an “acting” basis.
The talk of quick passage of a tax bill is a good example of the problem. The president has his plan. His White House staff is present, if not yet acclimated to the terrain. Congress is in place and fully manned. But at the Treasury Department, only the secretary and the undersecretary are in place. There is no policy team to do the work and oversee the number crunching that Treasury has to do to support a major tax initiative.
In addition to the formalities of vetting and the like, there is the traditional tug of war being fought throughout the nooks and crannies of the federal government, where a battle for power is being waged over the staffing of several hundred sub-Cabinet jobs. These fights occur when any new president takes office, but they can be particularly fierce when a new party takes over the White House.
For the Bush administration, filling these jobs involves a delicate calibration of interests: balancing moderates against conservatives — for example, placing more conservative underlings with moderate administrator Christine Todd Whitman at the Environmental Protection Agency — as well as satisfying key members of Congress who have been busy promoting their own candidates and torpedoing others.
What’s at stake isn’t just personalities and ambitions. Perhaps as much as the Cabinet secretaries themselves, the people appointed to these positions could determine the strategy and programs of the new administration in areas as diverse as civil rights, relations with China, Social Security and food safety.
It is likely to be well into April before a quorum of Bush appointees is in place and running the government.
Bush is a man of his word. He said he would propose a giant tax cut, and he did. Now he has an excellent prospect to pass the largest tax cut in U.S. history. The argument now is not whether to cut taxes, but how, and how much. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s remarks melted opposition. He had assiduously opposed cutting taxes, preferring to use the surpluses to retire the national debt in the past.
Then the Congressional Budget Office forecast Jan. 31 that projected budget surpluses have grown so much that the government will have effectively paid off the national debt by 2006. The CBO now projects an overall budget surplus of $5.6 trillion over 10 years, $1 trillion more than it projected six months ago. Coming on the heels of Greenspan’s support last week for a significant, broad-based tax cut, the CBO projection appears certain to unleash congressional demands to use up the surplus before the government begins hoarding excess cash.
Democrats, anxious that they are losing the argument against a broad-based tax cut on the scale Bush is proposing, have begun to rally around the idea of devoting one-third of the non-Social Security surplus to tax cuts, one-third to additional spending and one-third to some sort of reserve in case the projections prove too optimistic. But as the impact of the CBO estimate sunk in, Democrats began to sense momentum shifting strongly in Bush’s direction.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said he would like to add tax cuts for business and a reduction in the capital gains tax. Members of both parties are eager to expand the popular individual retirement account and 401(k) savings programs. An array of expiring tax breaks for individuals and corporations are likely to be extended and two of the most attractive targets for cuts are likely to be passed. They are: the marriage penalty that charges married couples a higher rate filing jointly than they would pay if filing separately; and the inheritance tax, which places hardships on survivors, particularly small business owners. After all, the decedent has already paid taxes on wealth accumulated in life and survivors should not have to pay again on the estate. It will be a feeding frenzy on the hill as petitioners circle for some tax break. The bill, when passed, will have more special favors on it than the national Christmas tree.
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