WASHINGTON — THE Bush administration so far appears to be the slowest to flesh out its ranks in US history. But the character of the new regime - as hundreds of new policymakers gradually take to their desks - is fully as conservative as the Reagan administration, according to a conservative analyst who closely monitors and promotes conservatives among White House personnel choices.
Hundreds of top positions in government - roughly two-thirds of the political appointments requiring Senate confirmation - remain unfilled nearly five months into the President's term.
The wheels of government still turn. Social security checks still hit the mails. But much of the hammering out of policy initiatives is typically done by the deputy and assistant secretaries who have yet to offically take office.
The cost of the slow-motion transition is mostly invisible: No one knows how much initiative the federal agencies would be taking even at full strength. And many offices are still held by holdovers from the Reagan administration. This is, after all, a friendly takeover.
But reports have surfaced of Cabinet secretaries complaining about lack of assistants and deputies to share the workload. G. Calvin Mackenzie, a professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, who edited a book about presidential appointees last year, describes the current atmosphere in some of the agencies as ``waiting for Godot.''
Caution reigns supreme in filling top posts these days. The first personnel decision in the Bush administration, his choice of Dan Quayle as vice-president, became a painful political liability during the fall campaign. Mr. Bush's nomination of John Tower as secretary of defense was the administration's first major failure, and in fact the first time the Senate had ever rejected a new President's initial Cabinet choice.
AND not only the White House is gun-shy in these matters. Fewer high-level professionals want to take massive pay cuts to work for government these days.
Louis Cordia of Heritage Foundation, who promotes conservatives for administration posts, insists that the country is flush with qualified people ready and willing to serve.
Yet people are consistently turning down some key jobs.
Aviation Week magazine reported no fewer than 24 people have so far turned down the Defense Department post of assistant secretary for procurement. The candidates who have turned down the Energy Department post overseeing the nuclear program have averaged three times the post's $80,000 salary.
Over the past quarter of a century, presidential appointees have taken - at median - a pay cut of 50 percent to leave the private sector, according to Dr. Mackenzie.
That pay cut is presumably worse now, since high-level federal pay has not kept pace with inflation.
PEOPLE typically take that kind of cut, Mackenzie notes from surveys he has taken, because of support for a president and excitement over being part of his administration. But after eight years of a Republican White House, Mackenzie suspects that Bush's reign of continuity does not inspire that sense of mission - ``the sort of thing one would lay down your plow for and pick up your gun.''
At least in certain posts, such as the defense procurement job, pay may not be as keen a factor as the coming of new ethics rules. The rules will restrict people for two years after leaving office from any private involvement on a federal contract that they had any government role in reviewing, awarding, or negotiating.
This could seriously stunt the career of a defense procurement officer who had any ambitions for returning to the private sector.
More than a dozen National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials have already resigned in anticipation of the new law.
Mr. Cordia at Heritage notes that Bush plans to move about 98 percent of Reagan appointees from their posts, about 95 percent of them from their departments, and 60 to 70 percent will be ousted altogether.
The slowest departments to be filled are the Defense Department and the Energy Department.
``It's by far the slowest transition in getting presidential appointments,'' says Senate Energy Committee counsel Mike Harvey. ``It's getting harder to fill the jobs all the time.''