Among my friend Bill Capron’s many achievements was serving as an economic advisor in the White Houses of JFK and LBJ. As someone who also worked in the Executive Office of the President decades later, what most astounded me about Bill’s experience was that even though he was only an assistant budget director, the Presidents he worked for would sometimes personally telephone him from the Oval Office with economics/budgetary questions. “Who else were they going to call?” Bill asked rhetorically “There just weren’t that many people in the building”.
He was an admirably humble man, but it wasn’t a self-effacing remark: The White House used to comprise a small group of staffers, each with an enormous range of responsibilities (Bill’s portfolio was the entire domestic budget of the United States). Back then, much of the work of policy development was conducted in executive branch agencies rather than at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Today the White House is crammed with a range of policy-related offices and has so many political appointees and civil servants that they now spill out into buildings all over Jackson Square, northwards up 17th street and southwards to G Street (with an expansion to Nebraska Avenue planned).
The growth of the White House is intimately related to the diminished role of cabinet secretaries, which Glenn Thrush vividly described in Politico Magazine and Robert Reich bemoaned in his painfully funny political memoir Locked in the Cabinet. And because these two trends reinforce each other, we should expect both to continue apace in future administrations.
FDR got the ball rolling when he created the Executive Office of the President in 1939, consolidating some functions that were previously done in executive agencies and creating some new responsibilities for his staff as well. But the far more consequential figure — as with so many other aspects of modern American politics — was Richard Nixon. His paranoid tendencies at their worst, Nixon intentionally appointed weak cabinet secretaries and created his own extensive policy apparatus inside the building (Then called the Office of Policy Development). Policy influence has become increasingly concentrated in the White House ever since, leaving most cabinet secretaries out in the cold.
To quote Glenn Thrush, many White House staff regard cabinet secretaries as “a bunch of well-intentioned political naifs only a lip-slip away from derailing the president’s agenda.” White House staff may also doubt the loyalty of cabinet members, particularly any Secretary who harbors presidential ambitions or is a reflexive reputation burnisher who will resist accepting blame (deservedly or not) when responsibility needs to be publicly assigned for an administration screw up. President after President has added more White House staff to overcome the perceived incompetence and/or unreliability of cabinet members, which has actually made the problem worse rather than better.
To understand why, consider dusting off J. Michael Weatherford’s political science classic Tribes on the Hill. Weatherford trenchantly analyzes the dual role of executive branch agencies and the people who lead them. Officially, they work for the President, but on the other hand Congress controls their legal authority and appropriations. Morever, members of Congress project power into the executive branch agencies, placing a former key staffer here, an old friend there, thereby creating influence channels that run in both directions.
This creates temptations for “the President’s people”. Imagine you are a former governor who has just been appointed a Cabinet Secretary. You come to Washington D.C. wanting to launch what you think is a terrific new initiative and some Jonah Ryan-type staffer who is just learning how to shave says there is no space for your stupid idea in the President’s budget. You are officially obligated to vigorously defend your boss’s budget, but your chief policy advisor, who used to work for Senator Backslap, hints obliquely that he’d be happy to pass along your quiet support for the initiative on Capitol Hill, where it has a good shot of attracting budgetary support despite the President’s opposition.
You know you should resist. But then you think of the look on the face of that smartassed little wanker who is half your goddamn age and how he and the other countless snot-nosed whippersnappers at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are always blaming you in the press when the white house staff screw up, and you say to your policy advisor, “Well (cough) if the Senator really supports my — I mean the — initiative, then (cough), obviously it’s the Congress that writes the budget and if (cough), they choose to go forward I would of course fulfill my responsibilities to (cough) execute their wishes enthusiastically.”
If the White House discovers your treachery, they will say “See, we cannot trust these people. Let’s hire more staff and bring more cabinet functions into the building where we can control them”. This bureaucratic response leads cabinet members to become so impotent and so distrusted that they contribute little to the administration and feel resentful towards it, feeding the cycle further.
My only gripe about Thrush’s fine article is that he attributes the current marginalization of the cabinet to President Obama and his White House staff. They must be responsible for their own decisions of course, but they are only living out a small piece of a larger political-historical trend that started before they got there and will continue long afterwards, no matter which party or which person is in charge.