Clinton economic panel signals effort at control Policy would be scrutinized daily

November 11, 1992|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Bill Clinton's proposal to create an Economic Security Council would put economic policy under the sort of daily White House scrutiny previously reserved for national security.

The appointment of a new economic czar, with direct access to the Oval Office, signals Mr. Clinton's determination to keep close personal control of the most troubling issue facing his administration -- the depressive interaction of weak national and global economies.

The initiative, a part of Mr. Clinton's economic program, has caught public attention. At a national meeting of business economists in St. Louis yesterday, Murray Weidenbaum, chief economic adviser to President Reagan in the early 1980s, was asked whether the Clinton proposal should be taken seriously.

"My short answer was 'Yes,' " said Mr. Weidenbaum, who is currently director of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University. "It could be an important innovation. I view it as an experiment worth undertaking.

"The most important factor you can have for its success or failure is how seriously the president takes it. It certainly seems it is going to have his attention, and it likely will have his participation."

The most recent precedent for the Clinton initiative was President Gerald R. Ford's Economic Policy Board (EPB), created in September 1974 to guide Mr. Ford's economic thinking as the country then teetered between runaway inflation and recession.

The EPB became one of the executive branch's most active and influential groups. In its 27 months, it met 250 times to consider 1,539 agenda items, and Mr. Ford described it as "the most important institutional innovation of my administration."

William E. Simon, who was Treasury secretary and a member of the EPB executive committee at the time, said yesterday: "The best part about it was it worked. The secret was we met every day. We only met for an hour. We talked about real problems, real solutions. It gave it [economic policy] coherence. It made it look like we were doing things on purpose. You could disagree with our policies, but you couldn't disagree that we had a purpose."

Perhaps instructively, Mr. Ford chose a life-long friend and confidant, L. William Seidman, a millionaire accountant, to be director of the panel which reviewed both domestic and international economic issues.

From his office in the White House Mr. Seidman ran the independent EPB, whose members included the Treasury secretary, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, the budget director and the secretaries of labor, commerce and state.

In an evaluation of the EPB in his 1980 book "Presidential Decision Making," Roger B. Porter, who was the EPB's executive secretary and is currently President Bush's assistant for economic and domestic affairs, wrote: "The EPB was exclusively the President's instrument. It had but one master . . . .Unlike many elements of the Executive Office of the President, the EPB did not prepare reports for the Congress."

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Porter said the Ford administration's experience with the EPB held three key lessons for the Clinton White House:

* The Economic Security Council should handle both domestic and international economics. "The global economy has become even more integrated and it's even more important that the two be considered together rather than apart."

* The council will be only as effective as the president chooses to use it. "To the extent one allows the mechanism to be circumvented and not be the channel through which you are going to get your advice and make your decisions, then you undermine its capacity . . . because that simply encourages more efforts to circumvent it."

* The council's director should be an honest broker, not an advocate. "He is the manager of a process. If he performs that well he will not be a high-profile individual. He will not be going out publicly pontificating on policies, but he will be working the machinery."

Although Mr. Ford and his aides judged the EPB a success, his successor Jimmy Carter dropped the system.

Said Mr. Porter: "There is a certain partiality . . . to doing it your way, and particularly when you have defeated an incumbent, as Carter had Ford, to show you have a better way to do it."

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