As taxpayers file their returns this week, the agency that administers the tax system is under siege. An unusually large number of senior-level positions at the Treasury Department are vacant, and increasingly it appears to be out of the loop on key issues within its purview. This downgrading of the second-ranking department in government is one reason why President Bush is having trouble pursuing his domestic agenda.
I was working at Treasury in 1989 during its 200th anniversary. President George H.W. Bush got a big laugh from the crowd when he noted that George Washington had nominated Alexander Hamilton to be secretary in the morning, he was confirmed by the Senate the same afternoon and sworn into office that evening.
In 1789, a good chunk of the entire federal government resided at the Treasury Department. Over the years, many of these functions, such as the Coast Guard, have been stripped away and given to other departments. Just recently, the Department of Homeland Security was given several Treasury bureaus, including the Secret Service and the Customs Service.
Nevertheless, Treasury has always been the premier economic agency of the government. Generally speaking, the Treasury secretary is the administration's principal economic spokesman, and the department attracts the best and brightest of those with an economic bent who wish to serve in government. This was especially the case during the Clinton administration, which had an extremely high level of talent at Treasury.
The department's expertise has been sorely missed during the Social Security reform debate. It is now clear that the White House put insufficient resources into developing its proposal -- such as it is, with no detailed plan yet on the table. As chairman of the board of trustees of the Social Security system, the Treasury secretary ought to have been at the forefront of developing this plan. Instead, he has been used only as a salesman.
Today, Treasury has fallen on hard times. The first secretary of the Bush administration, Paul O'Neill, was summarily fired for reasons that are still unclear. The current secretary, John Snow, was publicly humiliated when the White House let it be known that it was searching for a replacement last year. Snow was retained only because the White House apparently couldn't find who it was looking for.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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