Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Why are three Bush nominees to the Defense Department being held up by Republican senators?Something is wrong in Bushland. We have a president who is conservative beyond Reaganaut hopes, whose Cabinet is larded with rightist, and who woos conservatives like an ardent suitor. Yet his natural allies on Capitol Hill are boiling. Is this George Ws fault? Only in the buck-stopping sense. Somewhere, staff is failing him.
To celebrate his first 100 days in office, President Bush invited all the members of Congress to lunch at the White House. But fewer than half came, and the liberal press had great fun making the White House look silly. Every Capitol Hill intern knows senators and representatives open the week in their districts, fund-raising and fence-mending, and that you dont ask them for lunch on Mondays. Why didnt the White House know that?
And someone in Bushland doesnt realize that senators and representatives need advance warning of important speeches. Since 1981, when Sen. Jim McClure, Idaho Republican, then chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, set up the first in-house congressional television capability, there has been a procedure for supporting important presidential speeches. First, you brief your supporters on the Hill on the upcoming message. Then the Republican conferences set up cameras so senators can conveniently tape messages of support to go out to the networks and cable stations. And presto. Right after the president speaks, Republican senators from each state can be seen supporting the presidents policy.
When Mr. McClure initiated the procedure, he was criticized by the press for coming “between the media and their audience.” Exactly.
But President Bushs critical May Day ballistic missile defense speech caught congressional troops unarmed. Congress heard about the impending speech from the press and even then couldnt get details. As a result, when Mr. Bush gave the speech, nobody was lined up to help. And without help, BMD will not be developed.
Another peculiar episode involved the Pentagons announcement that military cooperation between the U.S. and China would be terminated, a move immediately countermanded by the White House. The Department of Defense presumably had attempted to pre-empt the policy initiative from the more pro-Chinese State Department. This is politics as usual. But why was the predictably controversial anti-China memo (which was sufficiently detailed as to make it unclear how it could have misrepresented Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfelds position) signed by Chris Williams, a temporary consultant in his terminal week at the Defense Department, and who is not legally empowered to sign high-level policy memoranda for any administration on any subject which the Defense Department (which has a perfectly competent legal office) knows?
Most Republicans on Capitol Hill support the Rumsfeld position, but they will soon lose heart if his decisions do not stand. No effort was made by the Pentagon to line up easily acquired Hill support prior to issuing the China memo. Why not?
DODs problem is usually blamed on the lack of confirmed staff which may have been caused in part by the vote-count delay in Florida. Even so, why is the nations most important department filling posts so slowly?
One reason for the delay is the conscientious, but redundant, process of doing security clearances, from scratch, on people who have been cleared before. One Capitol Hill staffer had to leave a meeting recently to talk with an FBI agent clearing Howard Baker.
The staffing problem is having major ramifications. Capitol Hill is currently awash with rumors that the Defense Department considers the Hill if not enemy ground at least not friendly territory. And senators, tired of hearing their staff called “Hillbillies” and of being kept out of the loop, are striking back. Three Bush nominees to DOD, those for the important positions of assistant secretary for public affairs, general counsel, and undersecretary for acquisition are being held up by and this is not a typo Republican senators.
Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi, Ted Stevens of Alaska and John Warner of Virginia have reportedly met with Secretary Rumsfeld to make peace. But if the hostilities are not quickly ended, the administration may find itself unprepared to cope with more dangerous foes.
Instead of complicating the clearance procedure, President Bush should order the FBI to streamline the process, which it could do by not duplicating work done on nominees who have been cleared before which includes, probably, most of the high-level appointees.
No matter how competent Mr. Bushs top people are and they get high marks they cannot run the government without good staff.

M.D.B. Carlisle was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Daniel Oliver was chairman of the Federal Trade Commission from 1986 to 1989.

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