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Resigning on Principle . . .

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, September 17 1996; Page A15


We interrupt the usual reports on political self-promotion and buck-passing to bring you the following shocking bulletin: Three members of the Clinton administration have resigned – not because of scandals, not to get big book contracts, but for reasons of (I hope you're sitting down) principle.

All the resignations were over President Clinton's decision to sign a welfare bill that the officials thought would be a disaster for the poor and the country. Even more remarkable: Two of these officials chose not only to make a statement of principle but to do so in a way that was about as loyal to Clinton as they could be under the circumstances. They did not quit until after the Democratic National Convention, thus minimizing the political damage their resignations might cause the president. Clearly these were people interested in making a point, not in garnering maximum publicity for themselves.

The resignations of top Department of Health and Human Services officials Peter Edelman, Mary Jo Bane and Wendell Primus – Edelman and Bane quit last Wednesday, Primus earlier – could not have come at a better time. In the midst of the Dick Morris self-promotion extravaganza, Edelman, Bane and Primus remind us that some people come to politics not to make money, not to get famous, but to try to move government policy in directions they believe to be in the public interest. Imagine that!

I agree with the HHS Three on the welfare bill, but you don't have to agree with them to admire them. To his credit, Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a Florida Republican who battled against Bane's position on welfare, went out of his way after she quit to declare his "highest esteem for her abilities and honesty." Resignations on principle have become so rare that you stand up and notice, whether you share the views of the resigning officials or not. People who do such things make it possible for you to tell your kids that government and politics can be honorable pursuits involving honorable people.

Edelman has been a Clinton loyalist for years, and he stayed in Clinton's government even after his old friend turned him down for a Circuit Court judgeship to avoid political controversy, and then snubbed him for a lower court judgeship. Edelman's loyalty up to this point only underscored the extent to which his quitting now really was about policy, not pique.

Bane, along with her former colleague David Ellwood – he left as an assistant HHS secretary last year – took a lot of grief on behalf of this president. Bane and Ellwood were among the principal authors of Clinton's original welfare plan. It contained the tough work requirements Clinton promised in 1992, but also included the financing needed to put people to work.

Bane and Ellwood's liberal friends often assailed them for supporting a work requirement. In defending Clinton's original plan in 1994 before a House committee, Ellwood had to endure a denunciation from Rep. Bob Matsui (D-Calif.). Matsui, wrongly, attacked Ellwood for alleged insensitivity to the poor.

The truth was that Bane and Ellwood, unlike some other liberals, understood that welfare reform emphasizing work was necessary and desirable, but that putting welfare recipients to work would cost money. They also knew that if Democrats and moderate Republicans didn't pass a reasonable bill before the 1994 elections, a disaster (in the form of a bill that required work without providing jobs) could happen. The disaster happened. Clinton signed it. So Bane resigned.

As for Primus, he has long been one of the Democrats' sharpest minds on the guts of legislation and always has used his skills to lift up the poor. He could not stomach being complicit with a bill that did the opposite.

What's odd is that the HHS Three lost the war over the bill but appear to have won the argument. There was President Clinton last week warning of the disaster this bill could be. The danger, he said, would be that "we passed all these tough laws, we didn't create the jobs, and here are all these people on the street with no right to get any help." Excuse me, but who signed that bill?

Unfortunately, Edelman, Bane and Primus are unlikely to get million-dollar book contracts or invitations to tony breakfasts at the New Yorker magazine. Their acts of principle will not get nearly the publicity that scandals get. Camera crews will not shadow them wherever they go.

But maybe there are some elementary and high school teachers out there who will take a moment some morning to tell their students the story of those people in government – conservatives, moderates and liberals – who put their ideas and their public commitments first. Those people exist, and the country needs to know about them.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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