On the economic front, the Reagan administration has done and said many questionable things in the past four years. But nothing is so downright dumb as the consideration President Reagan is giving to junking the Council of Economic Advisers, an institution that has advised every president since Harry Truman.
And on top of that comes word from Treasury Secretary Donald Regan that a plan is being discussed to scrap the independence of the Federal Reserve System by bringing it under White House control.
Happily, neither the move to abolish the CEA nor the one to intrude the White House into the operations of the Fed can be achieved without congressional approval. The Fed proposal, according to Regan, was made at a "low level" and is far from a decision. But the lesson to be learned is clear: The White House doesn't want independent economic analysis from either the CEA or the Fed -- which it constantly hassles -- to clutter up its legislative and political objectives in a second term.
Walter W. Heller, CEA chairman under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, said in an interview: "I'm outraged. If the president wants to make economic policy uninhibited by solid facts and sound analysis, this is the way to do it."
It would be a mistake to abandon the professional economic advice of the council, and to look for substitutes in the Treasury or other departments. "The CEA is the one source of (economic) advice that doesn't have an ax to grind," Heller notes.
Rumors about downgrading the CEA have been floating around since the departure last summer of Chairman Martin S. Feldstein, who went public with his view that a tax increase was needed to deal with the mounting federal deficit. William A. Niskanen, one of the two surviving members of the CEA, has been running the agency without even the courtesy of being designated acting chairman.
"It's a crazy world in which we're operating without signals," Niskanen told me. A September outline of the CEA's proposed 1985 Annual Report sent to the White House so there would be "no surprises" has yet to elicit any comments, Niskanen said.
The CEA, it should be noted, has a role beyond that of advising the president. It participates in dozens of inter-agency matters, bringing an overall perspective that would be totally lacking in its absence. "We don't have the institutional bias that one of the agencies would have to have," Niskanen points out.
Both the Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget over the years have been resentful of the CEA's "above the fray" role. But the CEA has provided an important way for professionals on the Treasury, OMB, State Department and other departmental staffs to bypass their own hierarchies to get ideas across.
When President Reagan precipitated the present brouhaha by telling the publication Human Events that "I have under consideration whether I want to fill (the CEA chairmanship) or not," he was expressing his anger over what has been called "the Feldstein episode."
And the darts being thrown at the Fed represent an irrational Reaganaut fury with Chairman Paul A. Volcker, a favorite whipping boy for high interest rates and a weakening economy. Some in the administration look nostalgically at an earlier period a half-century ago when the secretary of the Treasury was a member of the policy-making Federal Open Market Committee.
The consensus among many former CEA members is that Feldstein must accept a share of the blame for the present crisis, even if he performed a service by focusing attention on the deficit. "Marty wouldn't have lasted five minutes with LBJ," Heller concedes.
On the other hand, neither LBJ nor other presidents treated the CEA or economists in general with such contempt. Reagan didn't like what he heard from Feldstein; he also had little confidence in his first CEA chairman, Murray Weidenbaum, who quit without a fuss after he was excluded from the "Gang of 17" that attempted to negotiate budget reductions in 1982.
So the advertised displeasure with Feldstein is a flimsy cover for a more general distaste at the White House for alternative ideas, especially from economists and academics of all kinds. Despite a denial from presidential aide Ed Meese's office that this is "a Meese-generated idea," a highly reliable source tells this reporter flat out:
"Meese has been talking about this for the past six or 12 months -- privately." And asked where the proposal to ditch the CEA originated, Treasury Secretary Regan responded crisply: "the West Wing."
In the end, the president may continue the CEA, although it is hard to see what economist of any standing would now want the chairmanship. So the CEA may already have been dealt a mortal blow. But there is still time for calmer heads to subdue the strange animus that exists in the administration toward Volcker and the Fed, and to head off a new attack on another independent voice within the government.