When Bruce Bartlett talks -- we listen -- and so should the Bush White House
So -- the dollar is falling precipitously, gas prices are soaring, Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid are on the brink of collapse, the budget deficits are spiralling out of control as Congress goes on an endless spending binge -- and what is the Treasury Department's role in all of this? According to Bruce Bartlett, not much -- because of more curious inaction by the Bush administration.
No wonder I'm not fired up about Social Security reform -- it appears Mr. Bush has gone on his roadshow without a detailed plan to lay on the table.
And come to think of it, weren't we going to overhaul that complicated tax system after the election? (Where have we heard that before, only each time they "simplify it" we get even more forms to fill out and more complex schedules and formulas to figure out -- and you just probably did your tax form with attendant groans, curses and epithets -- not to mention new batteries for your calculator.)
But Mr. Bartlett lays out some serious staffing problems at Treasury, with many top positions unfilled and no candidates even in the pipeline awaiting confirmation, and he explains to those of us whose knowledge of economics is pretty rudimentary, why the Treasury department has traditionally been one of the most important departments in the Federal government since the earliest days of our Republic.
At tax time, or any time, this is a must read. I am particularly troubled (yes, boys and girls, not only Democrats get "troubled and disturbed") by the revelation that all economic policy is being run from the White House and Andy Card and Karl Rove. Now they may be political geniuses both, and who am I to quibble with political pundits preaching from their podiums, but I doubt that they are expert economists, nor can they formulate economic policy from the White House without some trustworthy and expert advice and analysis from the specialists at Treasury.
This isn't as sexy as wars of liberation, but as the Depression showed us, an inattention to the economy can have disastrous consequences.
From what Mr. Bartlett has written here, it appears that this neglect of the Treasury is deliberate, and may prove dangerous in the long run -- especially if some unforseen economic crisis crops up in the future.
Read more from the article:
. . .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.
. . . 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
. . .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.
(Bruce Bartlett is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, and a principal architect of supply side economics under the Reagan administration.)