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April 12, 2005

Bruce Bartlett Is Badly Disturbed

He's worried about the state of the Treasury Department:

http://www.realclearpolitics.com/Commentary/com-4_12_05_BB.html: 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....

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. Now, most of the key sub-Cabinet positions are vacant, and it appears that the administration is having great difficulty filling these positions. Among those currently vacant are the deputy secretary, two of the three under secretaries, five assistant secretaries and a number of other key positions.... This is really quite amazing, because normally Treasury has no trouble attracting very high quality people for its senior positions. Those I worked with were very impressive, and many went on to greater things. But now, it seems that the prospect of working there has become significantly less attractive. There are several possible reasons:

  1. All power is centralized in the White House, and the department really has no control over the issues that are its responsibility. According to the new issue of International Economy magazine, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, and Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten make all economic policy decisions. The Treasury secretary is not involved.
  2. People are reluctant to work for a secretary who appears to have lost the president's confidence and may be a short-timer.
  3. They don't want to waste their time giving speeches to high school classes in North Dakota or local businessmen in Montana, as Snow has been doing. He should be using his limited time more effectively on things like tax compliance, stabilizing the dollar, fighting protectionism, and financing the huge budget and current account deficits.

In other words, people want to work at Treasury to do what the department historically does -- develop tax and financial policy, manage exchange rates and other international economic issues, and be the administration's principal liaison to Wall Street. Giving speeches to high school students and being forced to implement policies that Treasury had little say in developing just isn't as interesting.... The problem is that we have a Treasury Department for a reason. It fulfills a necessary governmental function even in a minimalist state. One of these days, we may have some sort of financial crisis that will demand the full use of Treasury's expertise. I just hope there is someone there to answer the phone when that day comes.

Posted by DeLong at April 12, 2005 01:20 PM