Government Pace Slows as Workers Worry About Job Future : Mood Is Anxious on Administration’s First Day

Times Staff Writer

The departments and agencies of Washington, most of their great offices of power dark and empty, many of their workers gathering to gossip about an uncertain future, slowed to a lumbering pace Monday on the first day of business in the Bush Administration.

After a hectic weekend of inaugural celebrations, the enormous bureaucracy of the capital re-formed, as it always does after a holiday, but the mood of the day retained almost nothing from the celebrations. The atmosphere was anxious rather than electric in excitement. It resembled more of a winding down than a winding up.

At the Department of Commerce, the fifth-floor corridor that houses the offices of the secretary and his key lieutenants looked eerie and barren, with whirring sounds coming from the electric saws of carpenters renovating for new arrivals.

Like First Day of School


The State Department cafeteria seemed more crowded at lunch than anyone could remember. Although new posts probably will not be announced for several weeks, almost every Foreign Service officer showed up at his office just in case. The mood was much like that of the first day of school--even if most of the teachers had not been assigned their classrooms yet.

At middle levels of the bureaucracy, many nervous Reagan Administration appointees still did not know whether they would keep their jobs. They took little comfort from the fact that photos of former President Reagan, rather than President Bush, still adorned the walls of all federal buildings.

“At any moment, someone can walk in and ask you to vacate your office,” said Andrei Bogolubov, a political appointee now serving as chief spokesman of the Interior Department.

“Everyone is packed light for travel, not jumping to answer his phone or his door. . . . You sort of lie low. No sleeping dogs are being disturbed.”

The strange mood of the federal bureaucracy Monday reflected a central truth about the transition from one presidency to another in the American political system.

President Bush has named his Cabinet, but all but three--holdovers from the Reagan Administration--do not take office until their nominations are approved by the Senate. The President, moreover, has several thousand lower-ranking jobs to fill. His promise to retain some Reagan appointees has generated a good deal of hope and uncertainty.

It is not unusual for a new administration to start off as slowly and uncertainly as this one. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, warned in his memoirs that an emergency occurring during this time of transition “might result in bewilderment and lack of intelligent reaction, with resultant damage to the United States.”

The mood Monday varied somewhat at the different departments.

“I’ve never been through anything like this,” said a political appointee at the Energy Department. “Up in the executive suite, the offices are all blank. All the people who worked for them are back down in the bowels of the building. The only person up there is a career receptionist.”

Adm. James D. Watkins, the secretary-designate trying hard to keep a low profile, has set up shop in a separate corridor from the secretary’s suite on the seventh floor of the Forrestal Building while awaiting his Senate confirmation hearing Jan. 31.

Dole Moves Into Office

At the Department of Labor, however, Secretary-designate Elizabeth Hanford Dole, perhaps because her nomination has already won approval from a Senate committee though not from the full Senate itself, took a much different approach. She moved into the office of the secretary at 9 a.m.

An aide insisted that, as a result, this department was hardly marking time.

“It seems like things are really moving,” said the aide. “There is a lot of paper flowing by and pockets of activity. You don’t have the sense that labor issues lie low.”

Although Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh is a holdover from the final days of the Reagan Administration, many officials of the Justice Department obviously were worried about their jobs. “The atmosphere is part fear and part uncertainty,” one veteran attorney said.

Thornburgh’s recent decisions to abolish 11 jobs in the public affairs office of the department and to refuse to reappoint Francis A. Keating II as associate attorney general shocked and frightened many department officials.

“If I could take a six-month sabbatical,” said one nervous attorney, “now would be the time.”

At the Pentagon, the only visible evidence of the changing of the guard was the absence of the usual military guard outside the vacant office of the secretary of defense. The door, however, retained the engraved brass plaque of “The Honorable Frank C. Carlucci,” who walked out for the last time at noon Jan. 20 at the request of Bush.

There was a residue of bitterness about this because it was widely believed that Carlucci had offered to remain at the job until Feb. 1 to make the transition smoother between himself and Secretary-designate John Tower. But the offer was rejected.

Perhaps alluding to this, one political appointee said: “I’m going to be here until the day they come in and change the locks on the doors. And given the way things are going, it’ll probably happen just that subtly.”

Some of the uncertainty and fear among Reagan Administration appointees bred dark humor. “I’d like to stay,” said an official in the Department of Health and Human Services. “Obviously, I didn’t plan this very well--my kid is only halfway through college. But if I can’t stay, I’ve got my grate all picked out.”

Staff writers Art Pine, Marlene Cimons, Paul Houston, Josh Getlin, Jim Mann, John M. Broder, Ronald J. Ostrow and Robert Gillette contributed to this story.