Clinton Building Economic Team Around Expertise, Political Savvy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MAINSTREAM economists, members of Congress, and even Wall Street may breathe a sigh of relief Dec. 10 when President-elect Clinton begins to announce appointments to his economic team.

Mr. Clinton's apparent choices reflect his intentions to revitalize the United States economy and cut the federal deficit using a group of advisers who offer a mix of fiscal expertise and political prowess. He also is building on what he says makes him an agent of change: a new partnership between government and business.

Clinton is expected to tap two leading Democrats from Congress - Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, who has long made his mark on the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Leon Panetta of California, a proponent of deficit reduction and veteran of the budget process from his tenure as chairman of the House Budget Committee.

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The two top lawmakers have pored over a decade's worth of tax legislation, federal budgets, and deficit-reduction plans in their posts. They are skilled negotiators who are adept at consensus-building across party lines. Clinton will need these allies as he tries to move an ambitious number of programs through Capitol Hill.

By choosing Mr. Panetta, Clinton "would reassure Congress that the administration really wants to work alongside" with the legislators, says Gary Bass, executive director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Watch, a public interest group on federal management and the budget process.

"In this presidency, there will have to be teamwork between Treasury, the OMB, the Economic Security Council, and the president's Council of Economic Advisers," Mr. Bass adds. "There will be no one top dog; there will be many top dogs. And that's critical to form a coordinated approach on issues long-ignored. Today's economic interests intersect with so many public-policy issues, including the environment, welfare, and health care."

Big business, especially the oil, gas, and real estate industries - which Mr. Bentsen has fought hard to promote through special tax measures - is thrilled to see Clinton developing such a strong link to corporate America.

In building a bridge between his administration and the business world, Clinton will also draw on private-sector money men. His new economic security council will likely be headed by Robert Rubin, co-chairman of Goldman Sachs & Co.

Investment banker Roger Altman, a former Treasury Department official during the Carter administration who is now with the Blackstone Group, is in line to be Bentsen's deputy Treasury secretary. During the campaign, Clinton used Mr. Rubin and Mr. Altman as his eyes and ears among bankers, brokers, and corporate decisionmakers.

Reaction from Wall Street about Clinton's probable selections is positive. "I thought there would be a lot more from academia" in Clinton's inner circle of official economic advisers, says New York-based Maria Fiorini Ramirez, president of a global economic-advisory and money-management firm, MFR Inc.

Noting that Clinton has surrounded himself with a number of thinkers, including his economic director for the transition, Robert Reich, Ms. Ramirez adds, "You need practitioners to do the job." Like most market analysts, she says Clinton should "avoid short-term economic Band-Aids and focus on the longer-term imbalance between savings and investment in the US."

What pushed Clinton into office - the wayward economy - appears to be shifting course in time to allow him to revise his plans for a costly stimulus package. Consumer confidence has risen, factory orders are increasing, and unemployment is at its lowest level since April.

These economic signals flashing "recovery" may provide Clinton the opportunity to show fiscal restraint, rather than a propensity to spend. If he proposes and Congress enacts too many government-funded programs at the outset of his term, critics warn, he will drive up the federal budget deficit, lose the faith of Wall Street, and dampen recovery prospects by sending interest rates soaring.

Al From, director of domestic policy for Clinton's transition team, told reporters this week that he hopes the indicators do not show "a false start." While the president-elect will keep his promise to push for a middle-class tax cut, Mr. From says, he also will prove himself to be a "different kind of Democrat" by increasing long-term productivity through investment in education, training, infrastructure, and research and development.

Bass says Clinton can best achieve long-term stability by creating a sound working environment. Panetta's appointment would ensure a "critically important relationship between the OMB and the Hill and help end the seemingly interminable fighting between the White House and lawmakers."

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