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Political Animal

Land of Confusion

By Brian Morton | Posted 12/11/2002

These are amusing days to look at our national political climate, if only for the apparent contradictions. After opposing a civilian review committee to investigate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and response, the Bush administration backed it at the last minute and named legendary obstructionist, obfuscationist, and Nixon crony Henry Kissinger to head the panel. We can only wait and see if, when the panel releases its findings, it will feature a cover created in Photoshop showing Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden enjoying a drive through scenic Baghdad in Augusto Pinochet's old presidential limousine.

Nobody ever said George W. Bush didn't have a sense of humor. The drive to create a Department of Homeland Security was originally shut down by the administration over complaints about bringing the new cabinet agency's employees under civil-servant union protections. Following the triumphant Republican victories in the November elections, the Bushies got their way on the union stuff, and history is already being rewritten to say that the GOP wanted the agency all along.

All of this is rich when you see how the administration has brought back a government-worker bonus program that used to be off-limits to political appointees. Good news! The Enron system of rewards has finally made it to the Office of the President! Just like at the failed Texas energy concern, the top people reap all the benefits, and the rest who toil in anonymity get the shaft. Two weeks ago the president announced that because of the "war" on terrorism, pay increases for federal employees would only be 3.1 percent instead of the 4.1 percent Congress wanted. But now a program Bill Clinton killed back in 1994, because of abuse at the end of the first Bush administration, has reared its head again. "Good work is good work," Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer says. "There shouldn't be a distinction between those who do good work because they're civil [service] and those who do good work because they're appointed."

Except, of course, when it comes to getting union protection, that is.

Fleischer must be conducting regular séances in the West Wing to call up the spirit of Lewis Carroll for some of these ideas--it's downright Wonderlandish to think that we must fight both a war on Iraq as well as the amorphous war on Terror, and still fund the Bush reverse-Robin Hood tax-cut plan--much less expand it and make it permanent. We can afford to give bonuses to political appointees--who make more money and draw their bonuses from the same overall pool as the civil servants, leaving them less--but can't manage to push the annual pay increase for those general employees up for the extra percentage point sought by Congress.

If there's any consolation, it is that the administration has decided to shake up its team at Treasury. Secretary Paul O'Neill was long overdue for sacking given some of his bizarre predictions about how the market was faring. But the fact that CSX chairman and new Treasury nominee John Snow was a Ford administration official makes one wonder--how can Republicans claim the Democratic Party is mired in the past in running Walter Mondale and Frank Lautenberg for the Senate when they call back to the GOP of 1975 for Cabinet officials?

Meanwhile, Fleischer is still hard at work convincing the media that the sun is shining in through the windows when in reality the moon is out and the streetlights are on. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post noted how Fleischer stuck to the script even though reality showed how both O'Neill and Lawrence Lindsey, Bush's top economic adviser, were kicked to the curb faster than a hooker with a cold sore. Kurtz noted the following exchange during a press briefing:

Question: "Did President Bush ask either O'Neill or Lindsey to resign?"

Fleischer: "No, I've answered it as directly as I, as I can. The individuals resigned, as you know."

Technically, anyone who serves in an administration serves "at the pleasure of the president." Therefore, the president never "fires" anyone--they resign. But in reality, it doesn't get any more obvious a sacking than the way O'Neill and Lindsay got the boot. O'Neill even took the fast route out of town after the deed.

The big question now is, will the new Bush economic team be enslaved by the permanent tax-cut idea that the president seems to want to jam through Congress despite all other mitigating factors? Part of the reason O'Neill and Lindsey got the tar-and-feather overcoats and the comfortable ride on the rail was that they were a lackluster cheering section for the tax-cut plan.

So let's see if we can get this straight: The economy is good enough to make the tax cuts permanent, even though the economic team got sacked. The last guy wasn't fired, even though he was mad enough to leave town before Monday morning. Good work deserves to be rewarded by a bonus if you're a political appointee, but raises have to be cut because there's a war on.

Sounds about right for the guy who won without getting the most votes.

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