Purring Along The Potomac

In the intensifying contest to write the gushiest journalism about the new princes of the executive branch, the competition between Time and NEWSWEEK has been nip and tuck. Time's Elizabeth Taylor broke from the pack with her apotheosis of Al Gore as "an introspective spokesman for the inner child, an icon for the new manhood." But NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Alter, rising to the challenge, has written of Bill Clinton: "He keeps all of his old friends (even when they are of no political use to him) and makes about 10 new ones a day." Golly, 36,500 new friends every decade. Alter also espies the dim outlines of a New Jerusalem, a city of virtue, arising along the Potomac, and none too soon: "During the Reagan-Bush years, Washington lost its sense of shame." That sense was so acute until noon of Jan. 20, 1981.

Clinton may be coming as Cromwell to purge the capital of impurities, but this has not alarmed the lawyers, some of whom have been known to lobby. Let's see. Vernon Jordan, lawyer and influence entrepreneur, heads Clinton's transition. The person in charge of budget issues for the transition has lobbied for the AFL-CIO, home builders and a coalition opposed to cuts in Social Security-27 percent of the budget. As Peter Stone writes in the National Journal, "On Election Day, an eerie silence descended on the offices of Washington's top lobbying, law and public-relations firms ... the clout merchants jetted off to Arkansas to celebrate. . ." A headline in the Legal Times sent shivers of delight along K Street and should send a shudder through the Republic: FOR LAWYERS, CLINTON IS A CHANGE FOR THE BETTER. The story quotes a leading lawyer: "The one thing everyone agrees on is that the government will now be more interested in regulating business. We are all expecting about a 33 percent increase in fees." That will be a handsome return on the legal profession's huge investment in Clinton's campaign.

Government is by far the nation's largest employer, landlord and landowner, but that does not begin to measure its metastasizing presence in the nation's life. The government itself (OMB) estimates that the private sector spends 5 billion hours a year filling out federal paperwork. The cost, even at just $20 an hour, is $100 billion. (State and local governments involve another $20 billion in paperwork costs.) Lawyers know government will become even more labyrinthine and burdensome under Clinton than it became under Bush. The Bush Administration's number of pages in the Federal Register, the publication of government regulations, surged beyond even the levels of the Carter Administration. Democrats see the with 12 years of pent-up demand for government activism, but there is little money left over from entitlements and interest payments. Therefore, the government, which has shown itself capable of writing a 15,629-word directive on pricing cabbages, will get much of its exercise and amusement by writing lots of litigation-breeding rules.

Clinton came to Washington last week trailing clouds of glory. But the electorate, seeing him schmoozing with his party's leaders in Congress, may have had second, or perhaps first, thoughts about unified government. Clinton sealed his friendship with the party's grandees by the first of what may be many propitiations.

As a candidate he hurt Congress's feelings by saying the president should have line-item veto authority. Today the president is presented with 13 gargantuan appropriations bills and has the nasty choice of signing them, or plunging the government into chaos. With a line-item veto, he would be able to strike out particular items. Congress could not restore them without two-thirds votes in both chambers. The Democratic congressional leaders were in Little Rock just a few hours before Clinton beat a retreat from his line-item veto demand. Suddenly he called "intriguing" a much weaker alternative, that of "enhanced recision." Under it, the president could veto particular items but simple majorities in each house (where majorities would already have approved the items) could overturn his veto. Even that limp idea will face the probably fatal opposition of His Porkship, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Candidate Clinton said he would pressure Congress to cut its staff 25 percent in one year. President-elect Clinton, having been given an earful by Democratic congressional leaders, says, gosh, Congress has already cut its staff. But a recent government survey concluded that Congress has 38,509 employees, a number virtually unchanged since a year ago and 500 more than five years ago. No one can stop Clinton from keeping his promise to cut the White House staff 25 percent in one year. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. notes that FDR fought the Depression with a staff smaller than the president's wife has today, and fought World War II with a staff smaller than the vice president's today.

By quickly coming to terms with his party's congressional wing, on its terms, Clinton may have begun a familiar process, the Gulliverization of himself. Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, a president can be bound down by countless little cords, none of them particularly strong, but cumulatively immobilizing. Clinton and Congress can be counted on to see pretty much eye-to-eye about taxes. Clinton thinks it is very important to raise taxes on the obscenely opulent, meaning families earning more than $200,000 (about 850,000 or .6 percent of the 115 million taxpayers). There also will be various business taxes, but none of them will molest the sacred middle class unless members of that class buy goods or services produced by businesses. Tax increases, we are told, are necessary because of the "reckless" tax-cutting "orgy" of the 1980s in shameless Washington. But Congressional Budget Office economists say the average family's federal tax burden--income, Social Security, corporate, excise-amounted in 1980 to a rate (total federal taxes divided by pretax income) of 23.3 percent. Since then the rate has gone as low as 21.7 percent but today is 23.2 percent.

Worried by the welter of change? Don't be. The lawyers are on their toes and on the job, looking out for the welfare of everyone who hires them, Congress is purring with contentment about the pliable president-elect, and Washington has regained its famously inhibiting sense of shame.