An insider glimpse at making US economic policy

Roger B. Porter regards himself as an ''honest broker'' for presidential economic policy making. But sometimes he may feel more like a referee, trying to make certain that policy advocates play fair in seeking President Reagan's ear.

As shown by the recent battle among presidential economic advisers on the question of whether or not to boost taxes, economic opinion can and often does differ radically.

As special assistant to President for policy development, Mr. Porter is empowered to organize the meetings and get the policy papers written that provide President Reagan with an analysis of his options. With the nation's economic welfare probably the leading issue in Washington these days, his role is vital.

''The ways in which the President organizes the patterns of advice he receives can significantly influence how effectively these needs are filled,'' Mr. Porter noted in a recent talk to the American Economic Association. ''It can crucially affect not only the quality of advice he receives in structuring his decisions, but also how much integrating across issues occurs, and what support there is for implementing decisions once he has made them.''

Mr. Porter is on leave from a position as associate professor of public policy at Harvard University. His talk had a touch of professorial nonpartisanship to it.

President Reagan's basic policymaking tool in the economic area is the Cabinet Council of Economic Affairs. It is chaired by the secretary of the Treasury. Other members include secretaries of State, Commerce, Labor, and Transportation, plus the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), the US presidential trade representative, presidential aides James Baker and Edwin Meese, and Mr. Porter. The vice-president is an ex-officio member.

This group, Mr. Porter noted in a conversation, meets two or three times a week for an hour or so. It usually has a specific agenda. A subcabinet group also gets together regularly and helps prepare position papers.

One goal of the council and the staff is to act as an ''early-warning system, '' Porter said. It tries to see key economic issues three or four months ahead of time so they can be thoroughly reviewed and discussed.

It is when a problem arises quickly, needing decisions in three or four days, that mistakes are made, he adds.

The goal of these meetings, Porter says, is to have all positions heard, the facts obtained, and then various alternative policies outlined for the President. Sometimes there will be a specific policy recommendation.

Besides the large council, there are smaller economic policy groups. The ''troika'' - Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, CEA chairman Murray Weidenbaum, and OMB director David Stockman - meet regularly for breakfast on Tuesday. Mr. Regan has a weekly breakfast with Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker. Mr. Weidenbaum and Mr. Volcker also meet weekly. In addition, subcabinet officials meet regularly with their counterparts at the Fed. And President Reagan has met several times with Mr. Volcker.

''One of the most important things in terms of having coordinated monetary and fiscal policy is having the Fed understand what the administration is all about,'' Porter said.

After some public policy disagreements between the Fed and the administration last spring, the administration made a conscious decision to coordinate policy with the Fed in private at these various meetings. But lately differences have surfaced again in the press. The Fed wants the administration to do more to reduce the budget deficit. The administration wants the Fed to make the money supply grow in a more stable fashion.

Speaking before the current fuss, Porter held that the administration has to support the Fed's actions and that the Fed should support the administration's fiscal actions.

Next week the administration will issue its budget for fiscal 1983, a key economic policy decision as well as a statement of government revenues and spending. Soon thereafter the President will make his annual economic message and the CEA will publish its annual report.

These are ''action-forcing events,'' Porter says. They prompt numerous meetings by the various policymaking bodies.

Porter worked more than two years for President Ford and has also written a book on presidential decisionmaking.

In his talk, Porter held that the President must draw a balance in the policymaking process between a disorderly democracy and a highly centralized staff structure. He must reach out to the Cabinet and departments while maintaining an orderly process.

He talked theoretically and favorably about an economic council, similar but not entirely like the existing council. Then, he noted, ''the president must demonstrate by the way he makes decisions that he relies on the policy council. Departments and agencies must perceive it as the president's vehicle. The president must not permit end runs by departments or individuals but instead must insist that executive branch officials channel their economic advice and proposals to him through the policy council. . . .

''Secondly, a successful decisionmaking process requires skillful management. Someone must be in charge - calling meetings, setting agendas, developing papers. . . . He must exhibit two crucial qualities of an honest broker. On the one hand he must ensure due process, making certain that the views of interested departments and agencies are reflected fairly and faithfully. But he must also promote a genuine competition of ideas, identifying viewpoints not adequately represented or that require qualifications, and sometimes augmenting the resources of one side or the other so that a balanced presentation results.''

It sounds like an ideal policymaking process, and one hopes that Mr. Porter is achieving much of his goal.

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