Bush's Second-Term Agenda

Even those who like his program say it bears little resemblance to his actual administration

CONTRARY to popular notions, George Bush has assembled an agenda - a long-term domestic agenda - for what he wants to accomplish in another term as president.

The White House has honed it through the last couple of months, and is marching it out in speeches as what spokesman Marlin Fitzwater calls "the five pillars of reform" of education, health care, the legal system, free world trade, and big government itself.

The only problem: Even those who like the program note that it bears only a passing resemblance to the actual administration of President Bush.

"If you just looked at those, you would think you had another Ronald Reagan in the White House," says Aaron Wildavsky, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "But that's just not true."

Mr. Bush has taken an interest in all five areas of reform at some point during his first term, Professor Wildavsky adds, "but to me they don't really characterize his presidency."

The Bush agenda, as it is now emerging in the President's rhetoric, avoids the real subject, says Martin Anderson, a senior policy adviser in the early Reagan White House. "Economic policy is No. 1 on his agenda," he says.

But the major economic gambit of the Bush administration, signing off on a 1990 tax increase, failed to avert recession or hold down the deficit, says Dr. Anderson, so "right now they're not talking about it."

Bush is talking regularly now about his long-term program. "The fate of America's economic future rests on five key reforms," he said in a speech earlier this month. The five are:

* Education.

When asked in the Rose Garden recently what his most important priority in a second term would be, he settled on education, which he pitches for its importance to the future economy.

The White House wants to bring market-style competition to "revolutionize our schools." That includes what used to be called the voucher system, where tax dollars follow the student to whichever school, public or private, a family chooses. It also includes a greater focus on national student assessments.

The White House has been methodically trying to direct education reform since early in the Bush presidency, when it organized all 50 state governors to sign onto national education goals. But it was nearly two years before the administration signed on an education secretary, Lamar Alexander, who could carry the issue on his own. Up to that point, education policy was worked by a harried White House staff.

* Free trade.

President Bush consistently touts the virtue of open markets to all audiences. The rise of exports has, in fact, been one of the few economic success stories of this administration.

But the major effort to establish a worldwide structure for free trade, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, has been backsliding lately against resistance in Europe.

In the past month or so, Bush has begun referring to "free and fair trade" and "open and fair markets." No one could disagree with fairness, except that it is usually used in politics to mean blocking markets in retaliation for trade barriers abroad.

* Legal reform.

Vice President Dan Quayle has led the White House battle against the status quo in the civil justice system. President Bush only began bringing the subject up about six months ago. The Quayle program is to limit the size of punitive damages, shift some court costs onto losing parties to discourage long-shot lawsuits, and make other moves to cut the cost of litigation.

Bush argues that the 18 million lawsuits entered each year are a major drag on the economy, impeding innovation, putting doctors out of business, and discouraging Little League coaching - all from fear of lawsuits.

Bush has directed the Justice Department to adopt many of these principles in its own practices, but his proposed laws are gathering dust in Congress.

* Health care.

Bush has again brought market principles to bear on an aspect of health-care policy. In his State-of-the-Union speech in January, he proposed a voucher-style allotment to low-income families to pay health-insurance premiums. This would give the poor better access to coverage, especially the near-poor who do not qualify for Medicaid. Yet, after more than three years Bush has yet to offer details or introduce a major bill on the subject.

* Government reform.

This is a grab-bag theme that includes protest against big government, higher taxes, government regulation, the paralysis of gridlocked branches, and Democratic control of a Congress "that's gone out of control."

Bush's proposed reforms include giving the president a line-item veto, limiting terms in Congress, cutting federal regulation, barring campaign contributions by political-action committees, passing a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, and subjecting Congress to the same laws it passes for the nation.

Bush's strongest performance against congressional power lies in his 26 vetoes without a single override. But for the most part he talks a better game than he plays, says Gregory Sidak, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "I don't think the rhetoric describes the policy outcomes very well," he says.

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