Boskin Key to Council of Economic Advisers Resurgence

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON - In the early 1980s, the influence of the president's Council of Economic Advisers had fallen to such a low ebb that upon his re-election Ronald Reagan seriously entertained the idea of abolishing it.

And if Congress resisted, the reasoning at the White House went, the president could simply refuse to make appointments to the three-member panel.

Not only did the Council survive but, under President Bush, it also seems to be making a comeback that some in the capital say may soon be inviting comparisons with the halcyon days of Walter W. Heller, the tax-cut proponent who advised Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and, a decade later, of Alan Greenspan, the chief economic adviser to President Gerald R. Ford.

There is little doubt that the Council's resurgence, seen most clearly so far in the areas of trade and clean air, rests mainly on the personal chemistry of its current chairman, Michael J. Boskin, a 43-year-old professor of economics on leave from Stanford University, and his only client, Bush, a man with considerable respect for economists.

This relationship, cultivated also on the tennis court, involves frequent meetings, memo-writing and late-night phone calls when the president wants to follow up.

But many observers, including people around the Council, see additional factors at work in the panel's revival.

One is that Boskin, although relatively new to the ways of Washington, has proved highly adept in advancing his views.

Reagan dealt with his Council chiefs mainly through subordinates. One chairman in the Reagan presidency, Martin S. Feldstein of Harvard, sometimes felt obliged to take public positions at odds with those of his boss.

Feldstein is said to have been eager to preserve his academic reputation, but his disagreements may also have reflected an inability to make his voice heard in the Reagan White House.

But Boskin appears content with moving the center of gravity rather than insisting on total victory.

``He's sensitive to the political process,'' said David D. Hale, a Chicago economist who also gives Boskin high marks for resisting the not inconsiderable amount of ``Japan baiting'' in Congress and among various interest groups.

Murray L. Weidenbaum, Reagan's first chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said Boskin had also benefited by coming to his post at the beginning of an administration.

Moreover, he said, the Bush administration has managed to avoid visible squabbling. ``The degree of leaking in this White House has come way down,'' Weidenbaum said.

For his part, Boskin is reluctant to take credit for the Council's new-found and widely acknowledged esteem. …