Oct. 24, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 3

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    Economic policy adviser DeLeire speaks of experience in Washington

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office

    Tom DeLeire

    After being chosen one of eight senior economists on the staff of the Council of Economic Advisers, Tom DeLeire, Assistant Professor in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, began a sabbatical year in Washington, D.C. The council is part of the Executive Office of the President and is the principal source of guidance for the President on economic policy. DeLeire, whose areas of responsibility include labor, health, welfare and education, was recently in Chicago to lead a conference on child policy at the University’s Gleacher Center.

    Can you describe the council’s role?

    “Primarily, the council functions as an outside, impartial adviser to the President. The members are usually academic economists. It’s a unique organization because the three council members, such as Glenn Hubbard, are intentionally chosen because they are not part of the Washington establishment but have constant and direct access to the President and his key staff.”

    Are you enjoying your Washington duty?

    “I and the other senior economists assigned to the council all agree that it’s a fantastic and very exciting place to work. The White House staff is an extremely talented and diverse group of individuals. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for an academic to be part of this environment. We academics view our policy work as an outside process: we write a paper and maybe some other academic will pay attention to it, and maybe eventually it will help move the debate along in what we think is the right direction. At the White House, we are interacting with people who are making policy decisions that will have immediate effects. It’s problem solving on day-to-day, week-to-week issues. And I wasn’t hired because of a particular expertise on a particular topic. They want people well versed in economics with an independent perspective and people who aren’t vested in the political turf wars in Washington.”

    Do you think the council is effective?

    “Yes, I believe the council works well. The CEA serves an extremely important function because it brings outsiders into the White House and allows positions to be taken and opinions to be vetted that often wouldn’t be likely to be considered by a culture that’s exclusively inside the beltway. It truly helps in the policy decision-making process to have a wide range of opinions from many voices. Typically, the chairman of the CEA is an academic on two to four years leave from his or her university. Glenn Hubbard (a professor of economics and finance at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business) intends to go back to Columbia, so he’s not constrained by politics and agency wars, unlike someone who has made a career in Washington and who has to be cognizant that any position taken now is one they might have to live with for their entire life.”

    Can you describe how you work with the cabinet departments?

    “The areas for which I’m responsible are very closely tied to both the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Labor. The Council’s staff in its entirety–including the three members, the eight senior economists and the research assistants–numbers about 20 individuals, so we don’t have manpower to produce a lot of analysis, and certainly it’s not our role to carry out policy implementation. It’s essential for us to work closely with the departments from the beginning because they will actually carry out the policies. They also have outstanding professional expertise on the policy-making side of things, and we need to rely on their expertise.”

    As small as it is, why is the Council of Economic Advisers so well regarded?

    “It’s interesting: within the administration, there’s an awful lot of communication, and people recognize that you have to work together and move quickly to solutions. Everyone is very, very respectful of the CEA. We have a solid reputation built on a long history of excellent, hard-working economists in past administrations and earlier in this one.”

    The ornate, historic building where you work was the original home of the State Department. What is it like to work there in the atmosphere of the White House?

    “The Old Executive Office Building is right next to the White House. Most of the agencies that directly report to the President are housed there. It’s a beautiful old building, and it’s exhilarating to come to work there every day. On a typical day, I try to get in the office by 7 a.m., when the main White House gate opens. Then, like most of my colleagues, I will stay until about 7:30 or 8 p.m. and then use the gym in the New Executive Office Building. Usually I go home afterward, but not always. There have been many times when I look up, and I suddenly realize that a 10 or 12-hour day has just ended for me. One of the really interesting aspects of being at the CEA rather than academia is the timelines. In the academic world, you come up with an idea, talk to co-authors, and maybe in a couple of months you start the project. You feel lucky if in a year you’ve written a working paper and very lucky if it’s published a year later. And then people start paying attention. In the CEA, you’re often faced with the challenge to offer the right policy with all of its possible options, and ‘I’d like the answer in three hours, please.’”

    How do you see your CEA experience affecting your work at the Harris School of Public Policy?

    “This has given me a great perspective on many questions that academics are interested in. It’s opened up a whole list of things I want to work on when I get back. I would highly recommend to any academic that he or she spend time in Washington. It’s also been terrific to run into a large number of Harris alumni in departments throughout the federal government–in the Office of Management and Budget, the Treasury Department and the Congressional Budget Office, to name a few. I’ve found it extremely helpful to find out from alumni what part of the Harris School training was most essential to them. Though they generally say that the economics and statistics training was very important, I’ve learned that they found the Harris courses in cost-benefit analysis and program evaluation equally useful. And it’s always difficult for us to measure the benefits of our workshop course on policy making, yet Harris graduates in Washington have told me that it provided them with critical skills that made them able to succeed. This is tremendously affirming and makes my time in Washington an even more gratifying experience.”