Bush to Clinton: A Clean Handoff Is Anticipated

Changing of the administrative guard has become an ever more organized activity. WHITE HOUSE

A PRIME D.C. power-lunch spot is serving something called "Arkansas Stew." Real estate ads carry such tags as "Clinton Camp!" or "Rambler - 15 min. to White House." Lots of people are now claiming that they played saxophone in college.

Twelve years after Reagan Republicans swept into town on a tide of fur coats and jelly beans, Washington is preparing for new conquerors. Inauguration day may be 10 weeks away, but if power is the ability to compel attention, then President-elect Clinton is already the most powerful man in the land.

Within the Bush administration the gears will still turn. Government checks will go into the mail, regulations will be studied, assistant secretaries will meet, and so forth. But at the political level of control, above the civil servants, minds will be elsewhere.

"I just got a contract on my house," says one relieved mid-level Bush appointee, by way of a greeting.

The long lame-duck period of presidential transition is a peculiar feature of American politics and a time of upheaval in Washington itself. On the social level it appears the flat economy will forestall some of the Washington eccentricities of the past: the peanut-based entrees of the early Carter years, or the Nancy Reagan-red dresses, whose popularity made every party appear to be a gathering of Christmas elves.

On the political level the transition is a long drifting-away for President Bush, as phones stop ringing and the end of January draws nearer. The actual preparation for the transfer of government is surprisingly formal. It's not exactly the changing of the guard, with bearskin hats and drums, but in recent decades it has become more and more organized as the exercise of power itself grows more complicated.

"It is something that our government does very well," says Jack Marsh, a Reagan-and-Bush era secretary of the army who, as chief counsel to Gerald Ford, managed the transition to Jimmy Carter. "It speaks well for American democracy."

The tone of the turnover is important, Mr. Marsh says. In that regard, he praises Mr. Clinton's statements that Mr. Bush remains president until Inauguration Day, with control over such actions as tariff retaliation against the European Community.

While interest has centered on the naming of transition directors - lawyers Vernon Jordan and Warren Christopher for the Clinton camp, Transportation Secretary Andrew Card for the president - much real work will be done at a lower level. Each agency and department will likely name its own transition officer, typically not the top person but someone at a senior level.

These officers will meet with Clinton counterparts. They will discuss major outstanding budget issues, positions eligible for replacement, and current ongoing policy work.

It is likely that transition books will be prepared, a kind of Policy Britannica for new workers. "They kind of get a snapshot of where the present administration is," Marsh says.

CONSIDERING that even small US government decisions can move stock markets or offend foreign allies, maintaining discipline is important.

This means, in particular, that the Clinton team cannot allow overeager job-hunters to crash agency doors, walk into offices, and start rooting among the files and barking orders.

This sort of thing happens. It could be a particular danger now, considering that the GOP has been in power 12 years and it seems that everybody who ever licked an envelope for the Democrats now believes he could land a Cabinet job, too.

Experts have some advice for Clinton personnel officers: Find out who these tens of thousands of loyal party hopefuls are, and then make sure they can't reach you. The fact is there are not that many jobs. According to government figures, there are about 700 plum Cabinet and sub-Cabinet slots, and about 1,500 lower-level jobs for pure political appointees.

Most of the prospective Democratic officeholders already know who they are. "A lot of these jobs really require qualifications," says Mark Abramson, director of the Council for Excellence in Government. "You're not going to take a campaign worker and make them an assistant secretary for health."

All incoming administrations worry about decisions hurried by outgoing officials or money spent on favored projects.

Some high-level decisions may indeed get hurried along. British Airways' bid to buy much of USAir is being considered under a process that will probably allow the Bush administration to make the call, for instance.

But for the most part, current officials say, the career bureaucracy would probably flag or stop any such actions. "If anything petty goes on it'll be at a pretty low level," says an outgoing Bush appointee.

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