Who Is Behind Bush Economic Policy? Check out the Ward Room of the White House

Article excerpt

Every Wednesday, some eight or nine officials meet in the Ward Room of the White House to discuss economic policy. The group is collegial in the extreme with not much disagreement about anything, but no great decisions are made or even pondered. Most of the policies have been set long ago, and the burden of the talk is how to implement them--especially how to sell the program to the nation and Congress.

There are a surprisingly large number of officials present. In some past administrations, such meetings have been restricted to a "triumvirate" (heads of the Treasury, Budget and Council of Economic Advisers). Officials attending also are unexpectedly diverse. They range from the Vice President of the United States to Cabinet members to middle-level staffers.

Vice President Cheney usually attends, and so does his chief-of-staff, Scooter Libby, and his economic aide, Keith Hennessy. White House Chief-of-Staff Andrew Card is not usually there, but newly anointed Deputy Chief-of-Staff Karl Rove is a recent addition. Regularly attending Cabinet members include Secretary of the Treasury John Snow, newly appointed Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez and Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten.

One former Bush Administration official, who would not be quoted by name, made this criticism of the Wednesday meetings. "It's the wrong people in the wrong place. There are too many people at the table. It should be at the Treasury in the Secretary's office with the Secretary in charge."

But John Snow is just one of many at the Wednesday table, and that reflects the downgrading--which seems more accidental than conscious--of the Treasury in President George W. Bush's administration. With many key posts in the department left unfilled for much of the last year and Snow largely reduced to a salesman's role, Treasury is not the government's economic power house that it has been traditionally.

When Snow arrived at the Treasury in 2000, he inherited the broad strategies of how to deal with Social Security, taxes, and international currency questions. That helps explain his role that is diminished well below the traditional dimensions of the office, and it also is instructive about the roles of his colleagues.

Within that reduced scope, these are the major Bush economic players:

Dick Cheney. The Vice President has little to say in Cabinet meetings and has been known to remain silent during the full length of luncheons for Republican Senators that he attends weekly. But at the Wednesday economic sessions, he is described as positively garrulous--speaking early and often.

Cheney, whose uncompleted master's degree was in political science, is no economics theoretician and has shifted his economic ideology to fit whatever his current political situation might be. As President Gerald Ford's chief-of-staff, he opposed tax reductions. As a Congressman from Wyoming, he was not part of the supply side bloc but voted for the Kemp-Roth tax cut. As George W. Bush's Vice President, he is a forceful enforcer of what the President wants.

Cheney does not offer any innovations, but nobody challenges what he says. He speaks on Wednesdays with the authority of not only being Bush's chosen instrument but also as a close friend and long-ago colleague (in Ford Administration days) of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. That should not be construed, however, as giving Greenspan a backhanded voice in the details of the Administration's economic planning.

Karl Rove. The hand of Bush's political adviser in economic policymaking was always present but was hidden. Now that he has become White House Deputy Chief-of-Staff for policy, it is out in the open. Rove, who is about two semesters short of his bachelor's degree in political science, is no economist but is a policy wonk of the first order and understands the details of the issues.

He has less to say than Cheney on Wednesdays, and what he says usually involves the intersection of politics and policy. …