WASHINGTON -- A senior Republican senator who avoids the headlines and tries to help President Bush as much as possible two weeks ago was discussing with me the problems of seeking Social Security reform. Then he said something that surprised me: "I have been around a while, and this is the worst administration at congressional relations that I have ever been associated with."
I checked with several Republicans in both the House and Senate, and all agreed more or less with that assessment. Last week, I asked an administration official who is willing to speak his mind so long as his name won't be used. "I don't know that much about Congress," he said, "but I do believe this is a dysfunctional administration."
The worst? Dysfunctional? What about the praise of the strategic mastery that carried George W. Bush to a second term? Besides, is Bush not widely popular in Republican ranks? Does he not lead a party pretty well united on issues and ideology? All that is true. The dirty little secret, however, is that this administration succeeds despite chronic malfunctioning, and this more often than not is a matter of bungled personnel decisions.
I asked the senator who complained about congressional relations for the name of the official in charge of this White House function. Embarrassed, he said he did not really know. Intrigued, I asked another four prominent Republican lawmakers until I finally found one who knew the answer. This is a post held in the past by such major figures as Bryce Harlow, Lawrence O'Brien, William Timmons and Kenneth Duberstein. President Lyndon Johnson even gave O'Brien Cabinet status, naming him postmaster general while retaining his congressional liaison duties.
The answer to my question is Candida Wolff, an able and experienced lobbyist but hardly at the level of her illustrious predecessors. As is the case often in the Bush administration, the post was open for weeks until her appointment was announced Jan. 10. That announcement received little notice in the press, but it would seem reasonable for her to make herself known to major legislators during a two-month tenure.
Unfilled jobs have been a chronic problem in this administration -- especially at the Treasury, where several posts always seem empty. Recently, the vacant offices have included deputy secretary and under secretary for international affairs. The latest of multiple vacancies in the deputy's post occurred when Samuel Bodman was named secretary of energy without anyone ready to replace him at Treasury.
The number of unfilled Pentagon positions now rivals those at Treasury. Since Paul Wolfowitz had been earmarked as World Bank president for some time, it might be supposed that his successor as deputy secretary of defense would be standing beside him when he was named. But that is not the way the Bush White House works.
Indeed, it sometimes seems more interested in who is kept out of office than who is ushered in. The most celebrated recent incident, talked about in wonder throughout Washington's Republican circles, concerns the new secretary of commerce, former Kellogg Co. CEO Carlos Gutierrez. As first reported by Washington Post columnist Al Kamen, Gutierrez's desire to bring his longtime Kellogg associate George Franklin to the capital as his only personally selected aide was rejected. Franklin had rented a townhouse, but he was sent home because of his associations in the John McCain wing of the Michigan GOP.
Franklin was a man of prominence back in Michigan, but the Bush White House's icy hand does not discriminate between the mighty and the meek. One presidential appointee ran into trouble because he retained a young clerical employee who was a holdover from the Clinton administration. Every two weeks the official would get a call from the White House asking when this worker would be removed.
Even though these stories are commonplace in Washington today, the argument can be made that this president has passed major tax and education bills, pacified Afghanistan and removed Saddam Hussein from power, all while defeating recession. So what if his administration looks dysfunctional? In basketball, it is called winning ugly. The trouble is that a team that wins ugly sometimes starts losing.