President Clinton on Tuesday announced his long-promised plan to reduce the size of the White House staff--a move designed to demonstrate his willingness to pare government spending--but aides also said the Administration would continue to keep most White House costs hidden from the public.
The Administration said the White House cuts will reduce the size of the staff by 25%, or 350 positions, although 70 of those jobs belong to personnel on assignment to the White House from other agencies, at least some of whom will be able to return to their original agencies and thereby stay on the government payroll.
“Most families in this country have had to adjust their priorities and tighten their belts in the last decade,” Clinton said as he announced his plans. “And so, too, the government must do more and make due with less.”
The President also moved forward with his fitful hunt for an attorney general. Janet Reno, the chief state prosecutor in Miami for the last 15 years, arrived in Washington for interviews, and sources said the White House had requested extensive information from her and her staff on prominent cases she has handled.
Picking Reno, 54, would give Clinton an attorney general with substantial criminal law experience. As an elected official, she also has considerable political experience, which may be an argument in her favor.
Reno is single and has no children, making her less susceptible to what the White House now calls “the Zoe Baird problem.” Baird withdrew as the attorney general-designate after a controversy over her employment of illegal immigrants in her household.
White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said no announcement on the attorney general was likely today, but aides did not rule out the possibility of a decision later this week.
The new cuts in the White House staff will not take effect until Oct. 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year.
The cuts fulfill Clinton’s campaign promise to reduce the size of the George Bush White House staff by 25%. Bush’s White House, however, was considerably leaner at the outset of his Administration, and deputy chief of staff Mark D. Gearan said he could not promise that Clinton’s staff would not grow as well as the years go on.
In announcing his staff reductions, Clinton and his aides insisted the move was rare in presidential history. However, both presidents Jimmy Carter and Bush announced White House cost-cutting at the outset of their administrations. That most of those reductions disappeared over time sparked skepticism about how lasting Clinton’s reductions would be.
The skepticism was reinforced by the insistence of Clinton aides that “security reasons” barred them from revealing the budgets for huge chunks of White House operations.
For the last several years, Democrats in Congress repeatedly denounced the Bush and Ronald Reagan administrations for using such arguments to shield the overall cost of White House operations.
When asked Tuesday whether the new Administration would agree to release such information, Gearan told reporters “we cannot commit to that,” adding that “a lot of the budget information is classified.”
Calculating how many people actually work at the White House and how much their services cost has always been a difficult proposition because so much of the money that goes into supporting the President’s activities is contained in the budgets of other agencies.
White House aides confirmed Tuesday, for example, that the Department of Health and Human Services has hired numerous consultants who will advise the White House health reform task force as it develops Clinton’s health care package but who will appear on the HHS budget, not the President’s.
In addition, many White House operating costs, such as the money for running Air Force One, are included in the budgets of other departments.
In addition to staff cuts, Clinton also announced some small but symbolic reductions in perks. Only two officials--National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and his deputy, Samuel (Sandy) Berger--will receive a chauffeured ride to work every morning, a reduction from the six who received such treatment in the Bush White House. The White House will, however, still keep a motor pool of 104 cars on call to ferry White House aides around town once they arrive for work.
And the White House mess, formerly reserved for top-level aides, will be converted to a cafeteria open to all White House employees, putting an end to what has over the years been one of the great dividing lines in the status of presidential aides. White House aides also will receive salaries 6% to 10% smaller than their predecessors got, Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty said.
The announcements were clearly a preface to next week’s unveiling of the Clinton Administration’s economic plan. The point, Clinton says, is to demonstrate to the public that he is asking government to sacrifice before asking for sacrifices from taxpayers.
Today, Clinton plans to continue to convey that message with the announcement of a round of cutbacks at Cabinet departments as well as with his first televised town meeting since his inauguration. Clinton plans to travel to Detroit for the town meeting at which he hopes to use questions from studio audiences around the country to begin laying the political groundwork for the higher taxes and spending cuts that his economic plan will contain.
Officially, the President receives about $140 million annually for White House offices, excluding grants made to local law enforcement agencies by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the cost of the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, both of which technically are part of the White House but which have separate structures.
But even that $140-million total vastly understates the true cost of White House operations. It excludes, for example, the estimated $59-million cost of flying the President’s planes, paid for by the Air Force; the cost of helicopters, paid for by the Marine Corps; limousines and cars for his aides, paid for by the General Services Administration, and maintenance of the White House itself, paid for by the National Park Service.
The total also omits the nearly $100 million spent each year by the White House Communications Agency, a Pentagon office that employs nearly 1,000 people to provide the President with everything from secure telephone lines when he travels to audio feeds for his speeches. The White House has refused to release the agency budget, but the Washington Post reported the cost, based on a classified budget document obtained by the paper.
Some White House offices will see a substantial reduction, most notably that of the drug policy office, which will have its staff slashed from 146 to 25. Critics in Congress had said that under the last head of the office, Bob Martinez, the onetime Republican governor of Florida, the drug policy office had become a dumping ground for political favor seekers.
While the staff of the office will be cut, the director will receive Cabinet status, a move that pleased congressional supporters of the office, who had lobbied to persuade Clinton not to abolish it entirely.
But the move brought a blast from the acting chief of the office, John Walters, a Bush appointee who quit Tuesday, saying the cuts had made drug policy “hollow.”
“To put someone at the Cabinet table and not have a staff is a joke,” Walters said.