RATING THE CABINET, FROM A TO D Espy receives highest marks in survey ON THE POLITICAL SCENCE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- In any big organization, not every department head can be a star. Not everyone is skilled, either. Or lucky. Or successful. Some may even get fired.

A presidential administration is no exception. Eight months into Bill Clinton's administration, the members of his Cabinet are enjoying varying degrees of success. Here is a mid-semester report card, given by about two dozen Washington observers:

* Mike Espy, Secretary of Agriculture: A+ -- In his first week, Mr. Espy dealt with an outbreak of a fatal strain of E. coli in undercooked hamburgers by using the tragedy to push for overdue reforms in USDA meat inspections. During the Mississippi River flood, he is credited by farm groups with being responsive to the farmers' trauma.

Responding to calls to cut the fat in USDA's budget, Mr. Espy has also proposed eliminating 1,215 of the agency's 3,780 field offices. "He's good," says Sonja Hilgren, editor of the independent Farm Journal. "And he didn't need Al Gore to reinvent government."

* Bruce Babbitt, Interior Secretary: A -- Mr. Babbitt negotiated the fine points of a complex compromise on logging in the Pacific Northwest -- without sacrificing the environmental community's beloved Endangered Species Act.

He also is making progress in getting Congress to require Western ranchers to pay reasonable grazing fees on public land. "He's aced the job of pushing the administration's program while also pushing the administration further environmentally," says Joan Moody, a spokeswoman for Defenders of Wildlife.

* Janet Reno, Attorney General: A- -- Popular and respected, especially by women and fellow lawyers, she helped dump controversial FBI director William Sessions. Her opposition to the death penalty warms liberal hearts.

But her calls for more creative approaches to fighting crime haven't progressed beyond generalities, she's been slow to fill jobs, and her first big decision was authorizing the FBI debacle in Waco. Republicans contend that Justice is more politicized than ever, pointing to the firing of all 93 GOP U.S. Attorneys and to Ms. Reno's appearance at a rally for Democratic Gov. James Florio of New Jersey.

* Henry Cisneros, Secretary of Housing & Urban Development: B+ -- He got some credit for agreeing to head this troubled agency even before he demanded the resignation of the local housing authority board in Vidor, Texas, where the only four blacks in a public housing complex were hounded out. Mr. Cisneros, who has vowed to "reinvent" his agency, has his work cut out for him.

* Richard W. Riley, Education Secretary: B+ -- Although he hasn't authored any flashy new policies yet, he's impressed the education establishment with his work on Goals 2000, a series of goals for students. He's also refocused his department on public schools, particularly those in poorer neighborhoods.

* Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services: B -- She made some rookie mistakes, such as recommending a "value added tax" at a time the White House was scuttling the idea, but she brings a caring image to her agency. She also has reminded fellow liberals of the need to reform the welfare system. She's been overshadowed by Hillary Rodham Clinton on health care, but Mrs. Clinton eased the pain by smilingly introducing Ms. Shalala -- the day after the secretary went golfing with the president -- as the best golfer in the administration.

* Hazel R. O'Leary, Secretary of Energy: B -- She didn't fight hard for the Clinton administration's ill-fated energy tax but has brought an open style and a wry sense of humor to her job. A black woman, Ms. O'Leary has an office motto: "It's diversity, stupid." That's a reference not to affirmative action but to the need to diversify America's energy sources. After annoying Texas Democrats by saying she favored, but "not passionately," the superconducting supercollider, Ms. O'Leary made amends by saying later -- with a straight face -- "I lied. I am now passionate about the project."

* Jesse Brown, Secretary of Veterans Affairs: B -- Mr. Brown, a Marine Corps veteran who was wounded in Vietnam, earned his pay on Memorial Day when he stood beside Mr. Clinton, amid the boos and the taunts, at the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial. He also helped formulate provisions of the health care plan that will be a boon to VA hospitals. "He's a warrior," says Rep. G. V. "Sonny" Montgomery of Mississippi.

* Robert B. Reich, Secretary of Labor: B- -- He used up a lot of his capital arguing for Mr. Clinton's proposed $16 billion "jobs stimulus package." Mr. Reich kept upping his estimate of the jobs this would create, finally settling on the number 500,000, which many considered wildly inflated. He is respected by organized labor leaders, however, and enjoys easy access to the president, a friend of 25 years.

* Lloyd Bentsen, Secretary of the Treasury: C+ -- Mr. Bentsen doesn't seem to have great influence at the White House; perhaps his closeness to former Senate colleagues hasn't counted as much as was hoped. On the other hand, Mr. Bentsen gets high marks for his forceful handling of ATF misconduct in the Waco raid.

* Les Aspin, Secretary of Defense: C+ -- The mere appearance of the rumpled, slouching Pentagon chief is enough to antagonize some military officers, but Mr. Aspin has followed the brass' recommendations to go slow on cuts. He did not run interference for Mr. Clinton on gays in the military, but the biggest rap is that he hasn't filled key Pentagon posts. This is partly the fault of the "diversity police" at the White House; still, while the Army's 1995 budget is being decided, Mr. Aspin has no secretary of the Army.

* Federico Pena, Secretary of Transportation: C -- He flies coach class around the country as he tries to master what's gone wrong with America's airlines, but transportation issues haven't risen to the top of Mr. Clinton's agenda. Mr. Pena showed his commitment by rushing to the scene of the recent Amtrak crash in Alabama.

* Warren Christopher, Secretary of State: C -- A veteran of the Carter administration, Mr. Christopher is loyal, knowledgeable and respected by the young Clinton staff, who affectionally call him "Chris." But many diplomats believe he is not forceful enough, especially regarding Bosnia, where administration waffling and inertia have caused several State Department resignations.

* Ronald H. Brown, Commerce Secretary: D -- Mr. Brown's track record of accumulating wealth by representing various special interests was always his potential Achilles' heel. Instead of focusing on his top mission for the White House -- twisting the arms of Democratic members of Congress to support the North American Free Trade Agreement -- Mr. Brown is defending himself against allegations that he sought $700,000 to help Vietnam secure favorable trading policies with the United States.

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