"History is philosophy teaching by example." (Lord Bolingbroke)

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Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Changing of the Cabinet Guard. Why It Might Not Matter Much Who Sits In Those Chairs.

"They've been powerless since the 1700s," and now, according to David Greenburg at Slate, the presidential Cabinet under George W. Bush is more powerless than ever.

But Bush didn't invent the decline in Cabinet power. The Cabinet's decline began with the end of Washington's presidency. Washington didn't have many available to confide in; only Hamilton, Jefferson, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph. Ever since the Cabinet has meant what the sitting president chooses, and many past presidents have made theirs seem similarly irrelevant.

In modern times, FDR created the Executive Office of the President, an "institution, which included both the White House Office and the Bureau of the Budget, became the seat of presidential policymaking."

Other modern presidents have had less influence but have not used the Cabinet for truly advisory purposes:

In 1994, Fred Barnes wrote in the New Republic that Bill Clinton had "virtually abolished" Cabinet government, convening the body infrequently and then only for "social or informational" purposes. Two decades earlier, Pete Peterson, Richard Nixon's commerce secretary, described the Cabinet meetings of his years as "charades," and Bill Moyers, an aide to LBJ, noted that in his day, "very often nothing significant happens at a cabinet meeting." Indeed, as far back as 1959, when the political scientist Richard Fenno published his study of Cabinets from Woodrow Wilson to Dwight Eisenhower, he discovered that presidents had used the body only intermittently and with mixed results. Bush's achievement lies not in sidelining the Cabinet but merely in furthering its decline.

Why do we make such big deal of the Cabinet and how did the agencies get to be so large" After WWII the Cabinet continued to expand in size:

...In the postwar years, departments multiplied, with the creation of the Departments of Health, Education, and Welfare (1953), Housing and Urban Development (1966), Transportation (1966), Energy (1977), Education (1979), and Veterans' Affairs (1989). In practice, though, the proliferation of new divisions dispersed and diluted the Cabinet's authority since new White House bodies—a National Economic Council, a Domestic Policy Council, and so on—emerged to mediate among the various officials with a stake in a given issue.

Moreover, the departments spawned a slew of agencies and bureaus whose daily administration alone required a veritable CEO. ...

Cabinet secretaries became "bureaucratic managers" and the Cabinet has languished "because the new post-World War II departments --along with some older ones ...have become mechanisms of powerful interest groups to stake their claims withing the executive branch.

It is interesting to note how we can determine if a president cares or doesn't care about a reform in an area. If he DOESN'T CARE, "he can appoint an enemy of reform to head its department...Ironically, though, if a president DOES CARE and wants to focus on an issue, its Cabinet department will probably get passed over SINCE THE WHITE HOUSE WILL TAKE OVER.

I bet you didn't know that. Neither did I.

Read the rest of this extremely interesting and informative article on the history of the president's Cabinet.


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