Remembering Reagan - Donald Devine

Former director, U.S. Office of Personnel Management

Remembering Reagan

Lolling around the Oval Office after a meeting presenting charts showing the Administration was back-filling bureaucratic slots we had cut during the first few years, someone was waiting patiently behind, just out of sight. Bragging to whomever would listen about the president’s support for my plan to stop the backsliding, I figured he could wait. When I finally turned around, there was the President of the United States of America patiently waiting his turn to talk to the pompous personnel director!

Sensing my discomfort, he immediately put me at ease by saying: “Keep it up, fighting those bureaucrats, and don’t give up.” Smiling gently, he turned and went back to work. Here was the real Ronald Reagan–kind, considerate, polite, decent and letting you know that he appreciated the job you were doing. But he was also focused like a laser, keeping to the job at hand, here trying to keep his promise to cut government bureaucracy.

I saw him up close when he fired the air traffic controllers. As civil service head, I had expressed my displeasure with the concessions that the Federal Aeronautics Administration had made to the union, proposing pay and benefits well beyond the already higher rates controllers received compared to the remainder of the workforce. Since the union was gaining advantages through the threat of disruption and strike, the inevitable result would be more of the same throughout the government. Luckily, the union was greedy and rejected the offer. Then they crossed the line and forced the president to make history. At the subsequent White House meeting, the president was insistent. The controllers had violated their no strike oath as federal employees and they had to go. To him that was that.

The FAA head opposed the severity of the penalty and was dropped from the car on the way to the news conference by Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, who had initially supported the concessions but said it was now time to support the boss. All three of us wanted to eventually hire back the controllers (on our terms)-the penny-pinching personnel director because of the time it would take to train the thousands of replacements needed. Mr. Reagan, looking more broadly than we, would have none of it. As Secretary of State George Schultz wrote later, world leaders immediately became impressed with a president who would be so decisive. Chris Matthews reported that it was this one act that led Speaker Tip O'Neill to respect Reagan as a political leader who had to be dealt with. Business leaders told me for years that President Reagan’s actions freezing employment, denying unnecessary pay and benefits increases, and–especially–firing the controllers steeled their resolve to slim their own bloated bureaucracies.

In early 1986, while I was advising Senate Majority Leader, Bob Dole, he took a piece of paper from his desk and lofted it over to me. “Look what your friend is trying to get me to do.” “Do not forget about flattening the tax rates,” it read, plus a few flattering words, and was signed Ronald Reagan. “He is the only person in Washington who thinks this has a ghost of a chance,” said the Senator. “What does he expect me to do?” Within a few months, President Reagan signed a tax bill cutting the number of rates in half and reducing them to only 15, 28 and 33 percent, the lowest then or since. The top marginal rate went from seventy percent to one-third, the first substantial cut in a progressive tax system by a democratic government in recorded history. However alone, Ronald Reagan never gave up.

Everyone remembers his original supply side tax cut of 23 percent, a size most advisors thought was too large. Without it, total taxes would have been 23.8 percent of GNP, rather than the 19.3 percent he obtained. Fifty five countries followed with tax reductions of their own. Even his admirers think President Reagan did not cut government spending. That is because he insisted on increasing defense. On the domestic side, spending did decline from 17.9 percent of GNP in fiscal 1982 to 16.4 percent in fiscal 1989. Soon after, his successor increased it to 19.8 percent so people, especially Republicans, tend to forget. Still, he was flexible enough to support two items originally opposed by his assistants-Dole’s proposal to index tax rates for inflation and Sen. Phil Gramm’s spending limits–that also helped promote limited government during his administration.

Oh, yes, those higher defense expenditures and the technology and readiness they purchased, such as anti-missile defense, convinced the Soviet leaders they could not compete. Then, there was no Soviet Union and he had defeated the “evil empire” too.

He was the greatest.

Donald Devine, former director, U.S. Office of Personnel Management

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