7 FEBRUARY 1981, Page 8

Who wields power?

Henry Fairlie

Washington What a pity that the appearance is not the reality. Washington is dedicated to the proposition that countries need to be governed, yet one strolls through its streets now and government seems to have evaporated. Nothing is going on. I have just spent a few days in New York. I have never found out what they do in New York, but they do it very busily all the time. There is always movement in New York: mountains of trash grow higher, the streets get filthier, and no one goes willingly to sleep. Returning to Washington, I find it ambling. There is no government. Of the 3,000 high-level posts, few have so far been filled. Oh, that it would be like this for four years. Apart from those who have come looking for jobs, no one wishes this vacancy in Washington to change. The rich who have come to town, looking for pickings, are visible and noisy, but they leave no mark. Washington is sleepy. Rip Van Winkle, it is hoped, will never wake. One strolls on the mall. Government has vanished. There is no world but here.

Perhaps there are many reasons why the President and his men are refusing to form a government with people to run it. One of the apologists for the new administration, Mr William Sake, has produced a theory of ingenuity and some charm. He is convinced that Mr Edwin Meese, the man who is meant to be the prime minister to his regal but only constitutional monarch, is destroying the government with deliberation. Mr Safire finds it hard to write without enumerating his points. He numbers four in expounding his thesis. 'I.. He has entrapped the Cabinet in meetings. 2. He has shortstaffed the Cabinet in the crucial early days.

3. He has used a genuine hiring freeze to send the first chill through the bureaucracy.

4. He has been exploiting the transitional weakness in the Departments to reduce the rate of growth of the budget.' It is as artful a fantasy as can be imagined. This is Tolkien stuff. This is Hobbit world. Ah, if only it were true. You create a strong government by not having any government. No wonder that Washington is now so enchanting.

You may ask why I should bother to send the words of Mr Safire over the wire. Alas, he is not unimportant. He found magical reasons for serving Vice-President Spiro Agnew; he then found no less magical reasons for serving President Nixon; he then got out just in time to save his own skin; he was at once snapped up by the New York Times; he has since then turned himself into a purveyor of small-town thoughts in big city guise. He represents the calamity which has overtaken the profes sion of journalism, that it reaches to this servant of power to utter what are repre sented as independent views. That is why he is important. He speaks from the backstairs of power, the gossip of domestics, but the back-stairs is all people now know. The idea that the man whom he familiarly calls 'Ed Meese' is in command of the govern ment is the chit-chat of a footman. No one is in command of the government of the United States at the moment except Congress and the bureaucracy. Mr Safire stops for a moment to consider the fact that the Secretary of State, whom he inevitably calls 'Al Haig', moved quickly against the proposal to cut foreign aid savagely in order to help reduce the budget. Mr Safire is here right. As a result of the struggle inside the administration, and as a result also of Congress's predictable behaviour on the issue, foreign aid will stay about the same. So it should. Foreign aid is the very basis of American influence in the world. But to Mr Safire it is only an imaginary ball tossed in a ballet between his Ed and his Al. He does not even take into consideration the fact that the man whom most of us know as General Alexander Haig may believe in foreign aid, It does not appear to cross his mind that the Department of State may fight for foreign aid not as a bureaucracy but because it believes in it. If Mr Edwin Meese sees the struggle over the foreign aid as light-heartedly as Mr Safire, then the promise of this administration will prove to be only a house of cards.

The man who proposed the savage cut ill foreign aid was Mr David Stockman, the zealous Director of the Office of Manage' ment and the Budget. I have introduced him before in this space as the obvious pacemaker of the new administration. But he is at the moment being much too heady. If he is unchecked — and who will check him? — he will come a cropper. The administration would, in that case, come 3 cropper too. Searching too quickly for the budget cuts which he wants, he has proposed also to make a large cut in the food stamps programme. The food stamps are .a Federal Government payment to the 10d1 gent which they can spend only on genuine' ly sustaining foods. There have been mallY scandalous stories of the non-indigent 0° manage to qualify for them. Every study shows that these stories are greatly exaggerated. But the food stamps are grist to those who like to think that every welfare programme is mightily abused by the improvident and the unneedy. It is therefore very easy to attack them. Who has not seen some Punk student use them at the checkout counter? So restrict them severely. What could be easier or more popular?

Unfortunately the food stamps programme is authorised under a general Agricultural Bill. There are not many farmers who would agitate for it to be cut. Bread bought by the poor on food stamps is still wheat sold. But even that is not the point. The members of Congress from the cities will not let food stamps be cut if they can help it. Then how can they prevent the cut? It is so exquisite a lesson in government that it is all but painful to tell it. The new Chairman of the Agriculture Committee in the Senate is Senator Jesse Helms, the right-wing Republican from North Carolina, who has for long been a critic of the food stamps programme, and has even proposed reducing it by as Much as 40 per cent. That would seem to make it plain sailing for Mr Stockman. But then gaze across the Capitol. The Chairman Of the Agriculture Committee in the House of Representatives is Representative Frederick W. Richmond, a Democrat from New York. At the mere hint that the food stamps programme might be 'emasculated' his word — he moved in with a threat Which must make Senator Helms quail and retreat. How demure and abstract the threat might seem to the uninitiated. The representatives of urban and surburban constituencies, he says, will find it hard to support the rest of the other farm support programmes, included in the same Bill, if the expenditure on food stamps is severely cut. His words are strong: 'This Stockman is not very realistic. He is talking through his hat'. He is in fact 'overreacting because he is totally inexperienced in the politics of farm legislation'. Anyone used to Washington does not need to have that interpreted. In the same Bill as the food stamps programme is included the tobacco subsidy programme. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina represents a tobacco state. Representative Richmond rams home his point: 'Without a food stamp programme as part of the package, there is no way a general Farm Bill will pass. I have conveyed that idea to Senator Helms, and' he realises that the tobacco supports, so important to his state, will not go through without the food stamps'. Come on, Mr Safire. What is your Ed in the White House going to do about that?

For behind the entrenched checks and balances of Congressional rule, there lies also the entrenched inertia of the bureaucracy. Inside the Department of Agriculture those responsible for the food stamps programme will have already made their compact with those responsible for the tobacco supports programme. Mr Safire thinks that Ed with a few symbolic gestures will undercut this alliance? No wonder he does not yet understand why Mr Nixon's ship went down. It is not because Mr Safire was one of the most agile of the rats to scamper down the hawsers as the ship began to lurch free even of the tugboats trying to save it. Mr Safire has a mighty contempt for politics. But so did the administration which he once served. The unfortunate fact is that the contempt which he again shows in his exaltation of Mr Edwin Meese may all too easily represent the minds of some of the Administration.

I am writing before Mr Reagan's first important television address to the nation. It is to be on economic policy and precedes his message to Congress on the economic state of the nation. Both will need first to be examined as political documents. One should ask one first question: what can possibly go through? It is a genuine tribute to him to say that he is really the only hope of this Administration. It is otherwise a second-rate lot, in so far as any have yet been appointed, and with an unbelievable neglect of reality, whether in politics or in the rest of the world. President Reagan seems to have, which I did not believe until he was elected, the only political instinct in the bunch. I wish that I knew whether the secret of the tranquility in Washington now is a result of his amiable guidance of government or merely his no less amiable indifference to it. Time will tell. But for now he seems the best of them, and we must cross our fingers.