What Does the Treasury Secretary Do All Day?

CSX Chairman John Snow is President Bush’s pick to succeed Paul O’Neill as Treasury secretary. Other than producing a sample signature for inclusion on dollar bills, what does the Treasury secretary do, exactly?

The Treasury head is essentially the chief financial officer of the United States. Like corporate CFOs, the secretary oversees the nation’s accounts, including Social Security and Medicare, and manages debt—if a creditor’s looking to get paid by Uncle Sam, it’s technically the secretary’s responsibility to see that the checks get written. He’s also the official boss of such departmental bureaus as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Internal Revenue Service, and the U.S. Secret Service, as well as nominally responsible for making sure the manufacture of coins and cash goes smoothly.

Of course, most of Snow’s day-to-day duties will not involve signing checks, collecting taxes, or working the money-printing machines. The Treasury secretary doubles as the president’s chief economic adviser and thus assists with such important matters as preparing the federal budget and shaping fiscal policy. He is expected to serve as the public face for the administration’s economic programs, which involves constant trips to Capitol Hill to get legislators on board. One of Snow’s first tasks, for example, will be to visit Congress next month and push for President Bush’s tax plan.

Congressmen aren’t the only folks who get the Treasury secretary’s hard sell. Snow will be powwowing with Fortune 500 executives, foreign leaders, and banking magnates, too, as he tries to get them to go along with the Bush agenda. The job’s political dimension is especially important when a crisis hits, like the recent rash of corporate accounting scandals. In a bid to boost investor confidence, the secretary is supposed to make the rounds and preach an optimistic message. When that message stops working, as Paul O’Neill recently found out, it’s time to start polishing the résumé.

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Explainer thanks John Karl Scholz of the University of Wisconsin and Milton Leontiades of RutgersUniversity.