Choosing a Cabinet

Bruce Bartlett

11/1/2000 12:00:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett
In a little less than a week, either Al Gore or George W. Bush will be basking in the glow of victory. No doubt each will go off to a well-deserved vacation and either savor victory or lick his wounds. Meanwhile, the winner's transition operation will spring into operation. Those hoping for jobs in the new administration will begin their assault on those thought to have clout with the winner, and the press will go into a feeding frenzy of speculation about who will get top jobs and what policies we can expect from the new president. Already, pundits like Bill Safire are speculating about who will get a cabinet post in the Gore or Bush administration. I have no inside knowledge on this issue nor Safire's years of Washington experience, so I will not attempt to name names. But following are my thoughts about what Bush ought to consider when putting together his team and agenda. I limit myself to him because as leader of the out-party, he faces greater challenges than Gore in terms of the transition. The first thing Bush needs to be aware of is that time will be very, very short. There are just over 10 weeks between the election and the inauguration. During that time, Bush will need to select his senior White House staff, 14 cabinet secretaries and as many subcabinet and agency appointments as possible so that he can literally function on Jan. 20, 2001. Furthermore, Bush will need to ensure that background checks, both for political and security purposes, are done quickly and that the Senate gets moving as soon as possible on necessary hearings and confirmations. At the same time, Bush will need to prioritize his agenda and prepare to present it to the American people in his inaugural address. He will probably never give a more important speech during his presidency. Inaugural addresses not only point the administration's direction in terms of policy, but establish its tone. And given that presidents often achieve much of their substantive legislative program during their first year in office, the inaugural address is critical to maximizing that essential "honeymoon" period. Indeed, much of Bill Clinton's failure as president can be traced to his squandering of the transition and poor use of his first year honeymoon. He wasted much of the transition on a seemingly endless series of talk-fests in Arkansas that accomplished nothing, and he dawdled on key appointments. His obsession with the racial, ethnic and gender of his cabinet -- often to the exclusion of competence -- made the selection process slower than usual. Then, Clinton dissipated much of his political capital on an ill-conceived and totally unnecessary economic stimulus plan that ultimately died in the Senate. That made the fight over his deficit reduction plan far tougher than it needed to be. The remainder of Clinton's first year was consumed with creating from scratch a massive health care plan, never mentioned during the campaign, that was ultimately killed by congressional Democrats, whom he failed to bring on board at the beginning of the process. Obviously, the makeup of Congress will be very important to Bush's priorities and program. But even should both houses stay under Republican control, Democrats will remain a powerful force, especially in the Senate. There, they undoubtedly will look for an early opportunity to throw Bush off his stride by filibustering or otherwise derailing some initiative, as the then-minority Republicans did to Clinton on his stimulus bill in early 1993. In terms of Congress, I believe Bush should work first on those parts of his program that are most ripe for legislative action and have the best chance of political success. I would therefore suggest that he forego a major Social Security initiative, which will require major time on which to develop details. Bush's tax plan might be better candidates for early action, especially if the economy slows further. Bush should bring Congress into the picture quickly and draw upon the experience and expertise of members on both sides of the aisle. Depending on the initiative, it may make more sense for him to send a general proposal to Capitol Hill and then work with Congress to hammer out the details, rather than trying to do it all within the administration. Experience shows that Congress ends up rewriting administration bills anyway, and this makes it easier for the administration to negotiate and, if necessary, change direction without appearing weak. Bush's legislative priorities will also be important in terms of his cabinet. If he intends to make education his first initiative, obviously he needs an especially well-seasoned veteran as Secretary of Education. If he goes with tax cuts, it would pay to have a Treasury Secretary solidly versed in the complexities of tax policy, rather than, say, a Wall Street executive more familiar with banking and finance. Whatever path he chooses, Bush should pay special attention to his Office of Management and Budget director. In Republican administrations, OMB tends to be the central coordinator for domestic policy. Democrats, by contrast, tend to rely more on the White House staff. This means that Bush not only needs a good OMB director, but he should seek to fill as many of the other top jobs at OMB well before inauguration day. Many of these comments will be applicable to Gore, as well. But since he inherits an existing administrative apparatus and presumably will continue much of the Clinton administration's policy, Gore will be under much less pressure to move quickly on things such as appointments, since he can retain many of the Clinton people if he chooses.