Memo to Clinton: Prune the Plums


December 17, 1992|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Now that our triumph over communism is complete, the next goal is to spread American-style democracy throughout the world. In a place like Somalia, to take a lively example, it is obviously no good to have the country run by nothing but a bunch of warlords. That is a recipe for anarchy.

Oh, there is nothing wrong with warlords per se. But to do things right, American-style, you need Warlords, Deputy Warlords, Executive Warlords, Executive Deputy Warlords, Confidential Assistants to the Executive Deputy Warlords, etc.

My text for this sermon is that Government Printing Office best-seller, ''United States Government: Policy and Supporting Positions'' (211 pages; $13.00), a.k.a., ''the Plum Book.'' This is the publication put out every four years, right after the presidential election, listing all the jobs available for the new president to fill.

At first glance, taken as literature, the Plum Book is disappointing. Job titles like ''Confidential Assistant to the Executive Assistant to the Secretary of Agriculture'' lack the forthright glamour of, say, ''warlord'' (so impressive on one's business card). At the same time, they also lack the mystery and romance of such British government sinecures as ''Lord Privy Seal'' or ''Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.''

However, the Plum Book takes on a certain incantatory power when treated as poetry and read aloud. Repeat after me (from the Commerce Department chapter):

General Counsel

Senior Counsel to the General Counsel

Confidential Assistant

Counselor to the General Counsel

Deputy General Counsel

Assistant General Counsel . . .

Chief Counsel . . .

Deputy Chief Counsel . . .

Subtle changes are rung as the verse moves from department to department. The equivalent passage from the Department of Health and Human Services begins:

General Counsel

Principal Deputy General Counsel

Deputy General Counsel -- Legal Counsel

Special Assistant to the General Counsel

The Plum Book may also be read as a giant literary puzzle. It's easy enough to comprehend the basic hierarchy of adjectives in which Associate trumps Assistant and Deputy trumps Associate and so on. ''Executive Assistant to the Assistant Secretary'' is clearly superior to ''Special Assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary.''

But the rococo variations and permutations can offer challenges. Is a Special Assistant higher or lower than a Confidential Assistant? Where does an Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary stand compared with a Deputy Under Secretary/Assistant Secretary? When the same department boasts a Deputy Assistant Secretary (Policy Analysis) and a Director, Office of Policy Analysis, which one's analysis has a better chance of becoming policy?

And what do you make of the Treasury Department, which has a Deputy Secretary and an Under Secretary and an Executive Secretary -- each with the usual retinue of assistants and associates?

Also at Treasury, there is a Special Assistant to the Secretary (Policy Analysis), a Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary (Policy Management) and a Deputy Assistant Secretary (Policy Coordination).

With all these policy analyzers and policy managers running around, a bit of policy coordination is probably a good idea. But what happens to the analysis when the coordinators and the mangers disagree?

The deeper mystery, of course, is what all these people do. Let us not indulge in the cheap Republican presumption that anyone working in the federal bureaucracy must be a self-serving time waster. (Most of the jobs in the 1992 Plum Book are currently filled by Republicans.)

But the job titles give little indication of what the holder's duties are and how much, if anything, he or she is contributing to the common weal.

At the very least, it's hard not to suspect grotesque title inflation: too many Chief Counsels and not enough Indian Counsels.

One's heart goes out to the poor woman at the State Department who seems to be the only person in the entire government whose title is listed as the brutally frank ''Secretary (Typing).''

Her only consolation is that in the government, unlike the private sector, ''Secretary'' is also an honorific. Perhaps to avoid confusion, Lawrence Eagleburger should be identified as ''Secretary (No Typing).''

The government is very big on liaison. At the White House, there are two Deputy Assistants to the President for Public Liaison as well as a Special Assistant to the President for Public Liaison and another Deputy Assistant who is also Director, Office of Public Liaison.

Most Cabinet departments have collections of Assistants and Deputies devoted to Congressional Liaison, and the Education Department even has a Director of Corporate Liaison. All fair enough, perhaps, in a democracy.

But the Commerce Department has a ten-person office of White House Liaison: a Deputy Assistant Secretary, four Special Assistants and five Confidential Assistants, which seems a bit much. Why should an administration need so many people to liaise with itself?

President-elect Clinton has promised to prune the federal bureaucracy. He might well take this document as his Prune book, though there will always be people ready to explain why we need an International Development and Cooperation Agency as well as an Agency for International Development.

Indeed, Mr. Clinton's only bureaucratic foray so far has been to add a new National Economic Council (NEC) to the already existing Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). Look for Confidential Assistant to the Executive Assistant to the Associate Director of the NEC in the 1996 edition.

TRB is a column by Michael Kinsley in The New Republic.

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