Political games tax Treasury

June 05, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- President Bill Clinton once said his Treasury secretary, Robert E. Rubin, was the greatest since Alexander Hamilton. When President Bush announced the departure Monday of his Treasury secretary, John W. Snow, neither Mr. Bush nor anyone was tempted to compare him to any of his more revered predecessors. When Mr. Snow leaves Washington, will anyone notice?

The Treasury post used to be among the most powerful in Washington - filled by such weighty figures as John B. Connally, George P. Shultz, James A. Baker III and Lloyd Bentsen. As the chief department with a role in economic policy, Treasury was a major player in decisions about taxes, spending, regulation, trade and the dollar.

But Mr. Bush is the rare president who has little use for expert advice on such issues. So Mr. Snow ended up mainly as a salesman for policies made by people in the White House.

Henry M. Paulson Jr., head of the investment bank Goldman Sachs, is a big man on Wall Street. But to be a big man in Washington, he'll need to gain influence with the president. And one thing we know is that economic experts are not the first people Mr. Bush looks to for guidance on economic policy, if he looks to them at all.

Lawrence Lindsey, the Harvard economist who headed Mr. Bush's National Economic Council, arrived with an excellent reputation as a conservative theorist. But when he acknowledged the unpleasant truth that the Iraq war might cost $200 billion, he was fired. Mr. Bush's first Treasury secretary, Paul H. O'Neill, who had compiled a stellar rM-isumM-i in business and government, found the president had no interest in hearing about the fiscal consequences of his policies.

Under Mr. Bush, it's hard to find anyone with influence on economic policy, except political adviser Karl Rove. Mr. Snow was more cheerleader than player. Budget Director Mitch Daniels had no luck getting Mr. Bush to attack spending. The once-powerful Council of Economic Advisers has become invisible.

But maybe you don't need economic advisers if you have no economic policy - beyond an unshakable attachment to tax cuts. When Ronald Reagan came to town, he brought in people with pioneering ideas on how to liberate and revive the American economy. When Mr. Bush arrived, by contrast, he brought in people who didn't care much about ideas.

One of the most valuable things an economic adviser can do is sit in meetings with the president and occasionally utter the word "no."

Who tells Mr. Bush no? Mr. O'Neill tried and got cashiered. Stephen Friedman, who was chairman of Mr. Bush's National Economic Council, had been an officer in the anti-deficit Concord Coalition and was accused by conservatives of opposing tax cuts. But while Mr. Friedman was at the White House, Mr. Bush pushed through tax cuts and let the deficit explode. Could things have been worse with a pro-deficit guy?

In this administration, no one of consequence cares about the nuts and bolts of economics. John J. DiIulio Jr., a conservative academic brought in early to advise on domestic affairs, soon left in despair.

"There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus," he complained. "What you've got is everything - and I mean everything - being run by the political arm."

Bush loyalists may think there is no need for economic advisers, since the economy is humming without the benefit of their wisdom. But much of today's prosperity is being paid for with deficits that will leave the next generation of taxpayers overloaded with debt. Entitlement spending is out of control. The tax code is as hideous as ever.

There are plenty of things wrong with the administration's approach to matters involving your money. Too bad the new Treasury secretary can't do much about it.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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