Cabinet Counterparts: Bentsen and Shalala
The Texan is a master of the system, while the academic champions the vulnerable
IF the point man for President-elect Clinton's agenda for change is Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen Jr., the laid-back chairman of the powerful tax-writing Senate Finance Committee and Mr. Clinton's first cabinet nominee (Treasury), his counterpoint has to be Donna Shalala, the take-charge chancellor of the University of Wisconsin (UW), friend of Hillary, and Clinton's choice to run this country's major social programs at Health and Human Services (HHS).
If a master at packaging a tax policy and a self-confident provider of services ready to spend tax dollars can work in harness, it could provide the new paradigm for governing Clinton was searching for at his two-day economic conference in Little Rock.
By picking Mr. Bentsen, Clinton reassured the financial community it won't be the victim of radical, anti-establishment change but, instead, a full partner. At the same time he signaled to social activists that with Ms. Shalala's nomination they will have a strong advocate with close ties to the White House to see to their concerns.
It's a familiar political model based on protecting each group on matters of key importance to them, the kind of balance Clinton strove to keep intact in his long campaign to convince voters he was the one who stood for change.
Clinton has a team player in Bentsen. He'll help him design a tax package to stimulate the economy, take steps toward bringing the budget into balance and bringing down the national deficit, and give the hard-pressed middle class a little tax relief if that's what Clinton wants.
On the side, Bentsen is apt to play the progressive capitalist of the 1950s who hands out tax breaks in the name of stimulating the economy while taking care not to disturb the corporate status quo.
When Shalala was nine years old and there was a tornado watch, her mother found her at a corner directing traffic. At HHS, she can be expected to find ways to make the department's huge bureaucracy deliver services to its millions of clients in a more efficient way.
She struck that keynote at the Little Rock conference when she said she plans to "change the culture of the department so you're always trying to improve," a technique she claims "also saves money."
The question is how much operating room these two key players will have in a Clinton administration.
Clinton admires Bentsen's skill in building coalitions in Texas, where he won by huge margins by pulling in the rural courthouse crowd, keeping tycoons in Dallas and Houston happy, and not alienating Texas' noisy liberal wing. Clinton wants to build that kind of coalition on the national scene. Last fall, Bentsen reaffirmed his commitment to that kind of special-interest politics when he put special relief for two of his favorite interest groups - independent oil men and commercial real estate developers
- in his tax bill.
WHEN the commercial realtors market collapsed in the late 1980s, it helped pull down one savings and loan operation after another and left the country with a glut of empty commercial space. Bentsen wants to restore the passive loss deduction that allowed S&Ls to deduct operating losses from other income. He likes business incentives, but he's slow to curb abuses and saw no need for dramatic changes in the way we do business when the country's economy went into shock in the late '80s following the rash of
leveraged takeovers and the collapse of the S&L industry.
The senator assigned a top aide to look into the leveraged takeovers but, in the end, went with "a couple of things to hit them at the margins," according to Jack DeVore, his press secretary.
If Bentsen's selection for the key economic post in an administration that has given top priority to problems on the home front signals the takeover of the Democratic Party by its congressional wing, Shalala's job at HHS will be to protect the interests of the party's most vulnerable constituents: senior citizens, children, the poor - the core of the party's so-called "special interests." There's no question she, like Bentsen, is up to her assigned task.
HHS may be called upon to play a lead role in setting up a new health-care system, not an enviable task in these days of cost-cutting for a department identified with the "tax and spend" policies of the Democrats. Next to the task of integrating a major health-care program into an oversized department, Shalala's biggest challenge is apt to be its entrenched bureaucracy.
The experience of Grace Olivarez at the Community Service Administration (CSA) in the Carter years illustrates the problems that can arise when dealing with the bureaucracy. A self-made woman, Ms. Olivarez came to CSA ready to make government work. She quickly found many of her staff were underutilized. For instance, the sole duty of a woman on her personal staff was to decide where to send an average of four letters a day for processing. When Olivarez tried to give her added duties, the staffer took the
case to the Civil Service Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the employees' union. Rather than spend countless hours in hearings, Olivarez turned to persuasion. Later, she left CSA a disillusioned woman.
Shalala is already a GOP target because she's said enough things that make her sound like a disciple of "political correctness" to alert GOP watchdogs in the Senate. Her record at UW is mixed on the issue.
After an early incident that involved racial slurs, she was quick to come up with a major affirmative action program for minorities. But when her regents tried to restrict any remark "intended to demean" she objected to applying it to the classroom or to artistic endeavors. On the other hand, her rhetoric often has a politically correct ring to it.
She's also said she would "plead guilty to both racism and sexism. American society is racist and sexist. Covert racism is just as bad today as overt racism was 30 years ago."
Her GOP critics may put her on guard during the confirmation process, which in turn could complicate Shalala's efforts to get more funds for HHS programs, especially those dealing with children, a high priority of Hillary Clinton.
It's doubtful Bentsen's colleagues will challenge him for taking care of his Texas constituents when he goes up for his confirmation hearings, a reminder there will still be plenty of room for business as usual in Clinton's Washington.