George H.W. Bush's Bureaucratic Legacy
He presented himself as an outsider, but leveraged his extensive experience in government as president.
On the hustings, the late President George H. W. Bush presented himself as a Texan with an outsider’s skepticism toward the target-rich Washington bureaucracy.
But the 41st president—who died on Saturday at age 94, was a Navy hero, a member of Congress, a U.N. ambassador, a CIA director and vice president before he was elected to the top job in November 1988.
Bush’s single term was notable for his foreign policy adeptness at handling a range of crises that emerged in the waning days of the Cold War and its aftermath. He proved a steady leader with the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. He put together a stunning coalition of nations to repel Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and ordered U.S. troops to overthrow Manuel Antonio Noriega after he seized power in Panama, threatening U.S. interests.
His domestic record is remembered for a recession and the dramatic 1990 budget deal hammered out between parties at Andrews Air Force Base at which Bush’s team betrayed—with his reluctant permission—his 1988 campaign pledge of “no new taxes.”
But he also worked with Congress to pass bipartisan, transformative laws, including the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which reshaped public spaces for the disabled and prohibited discrimination, and the 1990 Clean Air Act revisions, which curbed pollution resulting in enormous positive health consequences for all Americans.
As President Ronald Reagan’s vice president, Bush came to the Oval Office in 1989 already predisposed to cutting government, asserting executive authority and resisting the ambitions of the Democratic-controlled Congress. A lookback through highlights from Government Executive magazine’s coverage of his four years in office reveals some familiar themes.
Impact on the Workforce
In charge of handing out agency jobs from the White House was Director of the Office of Presidential Personnel Chase Untermeyer. He reportedly intended to “enjoy the luxury” of the first friendly presidential takeover in 60 years by keeping Reagan appointees in place while searching for their successors. “I’m not under any pressure to slam-dunk people into jobs in the agencies,” he said.
Government Executive reported in August 1989 that “Bush is setting a new standard for rewarding political allies and benefactors with U.S. ambassadorial posts. Out of 37 ambassadors Bush nominated by July 14, only 30 percent were career members of the U.S. Foreign Service. By April 1990, Government Executive reported that the Bush transition had been the slowest in at least 20 years.
One appointee who would have a significant impact on federal employees was Constance Berry Newman, who Bush tapped to lead the Office of Personnel Management. She was a veteran of 12 agencies, including the Housing and Urban Development Department and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. “I think she’s learned a few things on her way up,” Bush told a gathering of Senior Executive Service members. Unions were just pleased that she was not Reagan’s controversial OPM Director Don Devine.
By June 1990, Newman released a pay reform plan described in Government Executive as “nothing less than splitting the General Schedule into local and national pay systems and moving many employees to a locality pay system in which salary rates are based on local costs.”
The 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act aimed to remedy years of neglect in federal compensation and make the civil service more competitive with the private sector.
Newman also sought to implement pay for performance by raising Senior Executive Service salaries by as much as 25 percent, but requiring the executives to be “recertified” every three years by earning an outstanding performance racing. “I am a strong believer in pay for performance,” Newman said. “And there is a difference between being rated successfully, just performing the tasks that people were asked to perform the previous year, and a decision that a person should remain in the corps.”
The SES celebrated its 10th anniversary during Bush’s first year in office. “Even though President Bush gave the first supportive speech in recent memory to the members of the SES soon after taking office, by itself the speech has had little effect,” Government Executive reported. The report cited Bush’s proposal to raise pay of judges by 25 percent while leaving the raises of “senior executives and hard-to-recruit specialists up in the air.”
The Office of Management and Budget, run by Richard Darman sought to reduce agency spending and rein in regulations. In a push that Trump-era observers would recognize, the first President Bush sought to “weed out unnecessary and burdensome government regulations, which impose needless costs on consumers and substantially impede economic growth,” read the goal reported by National Journal in April 1992. “The Federal Register has joined Weight Watchers,” the publication observed.
Earlier that year, Bush announced a moratorium on new regulations except those that “contributed to economic growth, that are necessary to protect health and safety or that are required by law.” He named Vice President Dan Quayle chairman of a Council on Competitiveness and asked his Cabinet members to submit a report on deregulation within 90 days. “Because of the constant pressure to develop new programs, we are not doing enough to review and revise existing programs,” Bush wrote.
In a piece titled “Hollow Government,” Government Executive noted in February 1992, “The slide continues, even though George Bush, the first executive-branch insider to become president in two decades, has toned down the bureaucracy-bashing his predecessors practiced and has moved to fill some of government’s most pressing needs. Bush’s actions, however, are constrained not only by his own philosophical aversion to spending and regulation, but also by the soaring federal deficit, which will likely exceed $350 billion in fiscal 1992.”
The Defense Department was not exempt from the effort. “The Pentagon Squeeze: Introducing the Leaner Defense Department of the 1990s,” read the Government Executive cover in February 1992. The Pentagon announced plans for a 25 percent reduction in force structure. Active-duty troops were to decline from about 2.1 million in 1990 to 1.6 million in 1997.
Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney told the magazine in October 1989 that he had planned on zero real growth in defense spending for fiscal 1990 and 1 percent in 1991. His views on acquisition workforce reform prompted him to say, “At the heart of our effort to reform the management of the Pentagon lies the challenge of persuading Congress that they have . . . imposed an awful lot of constrictions and limitations on the department that make it very, very difficult to do business.”
The perennial issue of when agencies should rely on contractors was also high on the Bush agenda. “OMB is developing a list of inherently governmental functions that should never be contracted out, scrapping a Reagan-era interpretation of Circular A-76 that virtually mandated contracting out and cut agencies’ budgets in advance based on projected costs savings,” Government Executive reported.
Over at CIA, director Robert Gates in March 1992 said he confronted two problems at once. “The first is the substance of the job: what information U.S. intelligence assets should deliver to intelligence-gathering agencies,” he said. “The second is the organizational question: How budgets should be reallocated, how reporting relationships should be changed, how people should be hired, fired, retrained or redeployed.”
Another significant organization issue fell to the Bush administration—reestablishing the old Veterans Administration as the Cabinet-level Veterans Affairs Department. Bush installed Edward Derwinski as its first secretary. “Not much has changed for the agency’s employees since the [Veterans Administration] became [Department of Veterans Affairs] on March 15,” Government Executive commented. “We’ll confess we really haven’t settled on what we’ll use as an acronym for the new Department of Veterans Affairs. VA was so clean and simple.”
A Message for Feds
Bush’s rhetoric about government sometimes echoed traditional conservative themes, such as “gluttonous government” and “ruinous over-regulation,” as Government Executive editor Timothy Clark noted. But the president’s 1991 holiday message to feds read as follows:
“Each of you makes vital contributions to the social and economic well-being of our nation,” he said. “Indeed, your knowledge, skills and commitment play an instrumental role in assuring the success of our government.”
It was a sentiment he clearly believed, as demonstrated through his life of service.