Business As Usual

i n the game of government, custom usually triumphs over change. And conciliation always beats confrontation. A good way to gauge the success of new Presidents is to see how quickly they adapt to these realities.

New administrations frequently take office pledging to make good on bold promises to change the way that things are done in Washington. Earnest attempts are promptly mounted to achieve reforms that many critics regard as badly needed and long overdue. Often, those early initiatives prove politically disastrous. President Carter never recovered from the congressional ill will that resulted from his bold-and ultimately futile-assault on major water projects that he regarded as economically and environmentally unsound. President Clinton also got off on the wrong foot with a major policy failure that alienated congressional leaders. That was the sweeping effort led by his wife, Hillary, to devise a system of universal health insurance coverage.

The current administration of George W. Bush has also absorbed a stunning early defeat. Its failure to accommodate the concerns of Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords, who responded by defecting from the Republican Party, shifted control of the Senate to the Democratic opposition.

More recently, however, the Bush administration has demonstrated a more sure-footed and savvy recognition of how and how not to try to get your way in Washington. A telling case is the Office of Management and Budget's attempt to curb excesses in "pork barrel" spending on Capitol Hill.

In early July, aggrieved lawmakers complained loudly in the press that OMB Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. was waging a jihad against congressional "earmarks"-the special provisions that influential members of Congress tack on to appropriations bills to fund favorite home-state or home-district projects that don't have the administration's blessing.

"They're sort of a natural, traditional part of the process, but it's gotten out of hand," Daniels asserted in the Washington Post. He buttressed his argument with figures compiled by congressional staffers indicating that 18,898 earmarked projects bearing a cumulative price tag of $279 billion were included in the appropriations bills then working their way through the appropriations process. Just five days later, however, Daniels' jihad appeared to be over. The OMB director diplomatically declared that in order to maintain good working relations with Congress, the Bush administration would accept a certain amount of pork as long as overall budget targets were not breached.

"It may not be good government," Daniels explained, "but if they do it within the totals we have agreed on, it's an acceptable cost of doing business. I wouldn't recommend a veto on earmarking alone."

The administration's ready acknowledgment of the "acceptable cost of doing business" should come as no surprise. Despite repeated protestations along the campaign trail that he was running as an outsider from Texas, Bush has recruited a governing team composed mostly of insiders, of people who know very well how the Washington game is played because they have played it before.

A National Journal survey of 300 top Bush appointees-including nominees awaiting confirmation-revealed that more than half are coming directly from jobs within the Beltway and fully 43 percent worked in the administration of Bush's father, George H.W. Bush. Thirty-one percent, including OMB's Daniels, are veterans of the Reagan administration.While it's true that a half-dozen of Bush's closest White House advisers-Counselor Karen R. Hughes, Senior Adviser Karl Rove, Deputy Chief of Staff Clay Johnson, Counsel Alberto R. Gonzalez, Cabinet Secretary Albert Hawkins and Staff Secretary Harriet Miers-are loyalists from his days in the governor's office in Austin, this is hardly an administration that speaks with a Texas accent.

The President's fondness for cowboy boots and frequent trips to his ranch notwithstanding, National Journal observed that "the current administration looks more like a restoration of the Republican government in waiting than a sagebrush rebellion."

Like most GOP administrations, however, it does speak the language of commerce. Nearly two-fifths of Bush's top appointees have worked as business executives and one-fifth have experience greasing the gears of government as representatives of Washington-based lobbying, public relations or trade organizations.

More so than most, this is a mature and experienced administration that knows better than to try to take the Capitol by storm. Instead, it can be expected to try to impose its ideology and advance its agenda incrementally through the tried and true techniques of bold pronouncements-such as edicts against pork barrel spending-followed by an eventual willingness to compromise and to incur those "acceptable" costs of doing business. It's not the most orderly or efficient process, but it's the way the game of "going along to get along" has long been played in Washington.


Dick Kirschten is a contributing editor forNational Journal. Contact him at dkirschten@govexec.com.
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