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White House Watch: Big Deal

A few hours before President Bush's big speech last Thursday announcing what is shaping up to be the most ambitious attempt to expand the federal government since Hillarycare, the White House quietly released an amendment to an obscure, Clinton-era executive order. The White House deleted from the original order a phrase defining America's air-traffic-control system as "an inherently governmental function." In other words, it was the first step toward privatizing the work of some 20,000 air-traffic controllers (the guys Ronald Reagan famously fired his first year in office). The change follows up on some little-noticed language in Bush's budget this year hinting at the plan. And last Sunday, when White House Chief of Staff Andy Card was asked about the privatization proposal on ABC's "This Week," he implied the president was moving forward with the idea.

The timing of the air-traffic move was more than coincidental. It was a sign of the Bush administration's anxiety that conservatives will take the new Department of Homeland Security--coming as it does on the heels of several other high-profile expansions of government power--as proof positive that George W. Bush has abandoned his small-government principles. And in fact, that's exactly what it proves. Bush's proposal--probably the most important political decision of his second year in office--revealed three underappreciated truths about his presidency. And the first is that ever since September 11, Bush's limited-government instincts have been all but abandoned.

There is a doth-protest-too-much quality to the White House's claims that Bush's reorganization will decrease the size of government. A "Sample Op-Ed" distributed by the White House emphasizes, "There will be costs associated with the new Department--but there will also be savings. Redundant functions will be eliminated. Overhead costs will be reduced." When Budget Director Mitch Daniels was asked June 9 if the plan would increase spending, he said flatly, "No, we're going to use the same dollars that we're spending right now." He added that functions of the department would actually cost less over time than they do now. In the very first briefing on Bush's plan on June 6, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer adhered to the same script. "Just to be clear on that," he was asked by a reporter, "there will be no addition to the size of the federal government, the overall bureaucracy?" Fleischer responded, "That's correct.... That's why I said it's essentially budget-neutral. It's a reorganization."

But in the few days since the plan was unveiled, these ironclad guarantees of zero budget growth have slowly given way to reality. When homeland czar Tom Ridge was asked last Sunday if the new department would cost more, he admitted, "Initially in transition, yes." Buried in the final pages of the report itself is language that grudgingly admits that the Bush plan creates new--currently unfunded--bureaucracies, such as a "threat analysis unit" to analyze intelligence from the FBI, CIA, NSA, and other sources. The report also acknowledges that "increased resources" and government "growth" may be necessary.

That wouldn't be a problem were Beltway conservatives not already fuming about a string of recent Bush betrayals--from campaign finance reform to steel tariffs to the bloated farm bill. Editorialists at National Review and the Cato Institute have assailed Bush's reorganization plan. And congressional Republicans worry that Bush won't keep the new department from growing bigger and bigger as it winds its way through Congress this summer. They conjure up Bush's acquiescence last year on the airline security bill: It was supposed to add 30,000 workers to the federal payroll; it may add close to 70,000. When Andy Card briefed congressional aides last Friday on the new Bush plan, an aide to Dick Armey--the House point man on the legislation--peppered him with questions about the new department's cost and size. Card conceded the plan would mean more federal workers.

Publicly, of course, GOP members are embracing Bush's plan. "I don't think Republicans are going to be eager to cross the president going into the elections," says one House leadership aide. But the new department is one more sign of a widening ideological gulf between Gingrichite libertarians--who opposed the airline security bill; fought key elements of the "Patriot Act" on civil liberties grounds; and pushed Bush (unsuccessfully) to submit a balanced budget--and national security hawks, who see the war as an opportunity to rid conservatism of its post-1994 green-eyeshade small-mindedness. Last week's announcement is the clearest evidence yet of where Bush falls.

The homeland security reorganization plan revealed something else about this White House: its penchant for centralizing power. Early in his presidency Bush bragged that he would devolve power out of the West Wing and into the hands of his Cabinet, which would act as a sort of board of directors. But no department heads were asked to join the clique of senior White House aides who planned the redesign. Cabinet secretaries didn't know about the plan until the last minute. For instance, Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill, who stands to lose $5 billion worth of his department, wasn't informed until the day before Bush's speech.

The plan also suggests the growing clout of Card, previously one of the lowest-profile chiefs of staff in recent times, who basically seized the homeland office from Ridge and led the redesign. (It was Card, not Ridge, who decided the administration needed to completely rethink its homeland security structure.) In his now-infamous Esquire interview, Card said that with Karen Hughes gone, someone in the White House would have to wield more power in order to balance Karl Rove: That someone would seem to be him. And once again, Fleischer was out of the loop. "Creating a Cabinet post doesn't solve anything," he lectured a couple of months before Bush asked Congress to create a Cabinet post. So were many Republicans on the Hill: Seven Republican senators on the Governmental Affairs Committee, acting as surrogates for an administration that publicly opposed a new department, noisily voted against such a bill just two weeks before Bush shifted course and embraced the idea. These same senators will be now be expected to reverse themselves and shepherd Bush's legislation through their committee.

Finally, the homeland security announcement has fed a growing Washington conventional wisdom that the Bush administration is at least as politically shameless as its predecessor. Critics immediately pointed out that although Bush announced his plan last Thursday--conveniently timed to step on whistle-blower Coleen Rowley's testimony about FBI bungling--the White House won't be ready to formally introduce it as legislation for several more weeks. The report the White House did put out is amateurish and lacking in detail compared with the thick, colorful proposals it usually favors. And by this Tuesday, Bush was in battleground state Missouri, standing before a huge backdrop bearing the phrase "protecting the homeland."

The gambit worked. As National Journal's Charlie Cook points out, immediately before the president's speech last Thursday, his Gallup approval rating had fallen to a post-9/11 low (a still-impressive 70 percent), and the number of people saying the country was going in the "right direction" was headed south. The first surveys taken after the speech show Bush's approval rating back in the high 70s and show concerns about pre-9/11 intelligence failures abating. In the longer run, however, the results may be more mixed. In the Beltway at least, a much more cynical view of Bush is taking shape--not just among Democrats, but among the press as well. When the administration revealed the alleged plan by Jose Padilla to detonate a dirty bomb this week, questions immediately turned to the timing of the revelation, since Padilla had been in custody for a month. The New York Times noted that many wondered whether it was "part of a pattern in which the administration orchestrated its announcements to help it politically." Next thing you know, cynics will be asking why the Bushies are suddenly so keen on privatizing air-traffic control.

This article originally ran in the June 24, 2002, issue of the magazine.