- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Washington Post reported Sept. 9 that Treasury Secretary John Snow is once again being shown the door. His rumored replacement is White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who would then be replaced either by Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove or Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten. This sounds like a bad plan to me.

Only a few months ago, almost daily White House leaks concerned Mr. Snow being dismissed. Asked to comment on the record, the White House denied any intention of firing him. Mr. Snow could stay as long as wanted to, a spokesman said, “provided it is not very long,” The Post reported.

Although Mr. Snow eventually got a White House reprieve, he might as well have left for all the influence he seems to have. Though the treasury secretary chairs the Social Security trust fund board of trustees and the department is well staffed by economists with deep knowledge of the subject, this expertise seems never to be tapped.

Instead, fundamental reform of our nation’s oldest and largest entitlement program was largely entrusted to a couple of midlevel White House staffers with neither the experience nor the resources to manage such an important project.

Indeed, despite much talk about a Bush “plan” to reform Social Security over the last year, in fact no such plan exists. It remains a bare-bones idea, with no details or legislative language to permit an analysis of its specific features.

Little wonder, then, the reform effort has no traction, despite the president’s enormous commitment of time to pep talks all over the country. However, a detailed advance plan, fully fleshed out with appropriate analyses and explanations of its specific features, is needed for reform to succeed. Moreover, the supporting material needs to be available long enough for the Washington policy community — on Capitol Hill, in policy institutes and among reporters — to fully the details and be able to discuss them knowledgeably.

This is, in fact, how large policy initiatives usually are done. Usually, the Cabinet department with primary expertise drafts a report published by the Government Printing Office and widely distributed. The report would explain the philosophy and rationale for the policy change, and detail a proposal with extensive background, explanations of each provision, and evidence and argumentation for the change.

Nothing like this was done for Social Security. True, a commission prepared a report four years ago, but it was just a general overview and endorsed no particular proposal.

We still await such a proposal from the White House. Lacking it, every member of Congress and policy institute supporting reform were forced to come up with their own plan, thereby dissipating support among competing, often conflicting efforts.

Were the Treasury in charge of the reform effort, I believe it would be much closer to passage. But instead of using the department to flesh out the Social Security plan and work with financial experts on fine-tuning it to ensure it would work, Mr. Snow was sent to the boondocks to give speeches to schoolchildren. Little wonder public support for Social Security reform was anemic and the political prospects virtually nonexistent even before Katrina.

Yet despite widespread criticism of the White House for putting an inexperienced political hack in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, it seems poised to do the same thing to the Treasury Department.

As Katrina shows, it’s not too hard to run an agency in normal times but can be extremely difficult in a crisis. Then we desperately need leadership skills and technical expertise, neither of which former FEMA Director Michael Brown had.

Many experts are now deeply concerned about stresses and strains in the financial sector, and fear a crisis could emerge at any moment. The huge budget and current account deficits, rising energy and gold prices, a bubble in the housing market, out-of-control hedge funds and a collapsing corporate pension system are some of the things that could trigger a financial crisis. If that happens, I fear Andy Card would be out of his depth as much as Michael Brown was in New Orleans.

If President Bush feels compelled to replace Mr. Snow, the obvious choice is Alan Greenspan, who retires as Federal Reserve chairman in January. No one doubts he will know what to do in a financial crisis.

Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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