Opening Up the Cabinet

Starting with FDR and moving forward in history, the White House staff has become larger and larger and exerted more control over once-autonomous cabinet departments. A friend of mine who was deputy budget director for JFK related that the White House was still so small in the early 1960s that when there was a policy debate internally, the President would say “Give me his office number” and simply call the key person on the phone and speak to him/her directly with no handlers, advisers, special assistants, policy groups, councils and the like as intermediaries. In contrast, today the Executive Office of the President staff fill multiple, large office buildings around the White House with plans for further expanded offices in the works.

Nixon grew the White House executive offices particularly dramatically in 1970 when he created the Office of Policy Development, but every President since has followed the same route. Some people thought that the Obama White House would depart from Bush’s approach of tight management (famously, when Secretaries met with Karl Rove, it was in Rove’s office), but in fact the President’s team continued in the centralizing direction including creating two new white house offices as another layer between one or two cabinet secretaries and the President (HHS in one case, Energy and EPA in the other).

In the past few decades, many cabinet members have left town frustrated by how little decision-making power they had (former governors such as Tommy Thompson, probably feel this way most often). The current unhappiness in President Obama’s cabinet is therefore familiar.

What “White House types” (irrespective of administration) tend to say is that if you let cabinet members have some autonomy, they will make mistakes. Well, of course they will, they are human. What seems less appreciated is that (1) Recent administrations have underused some truly extraordinary cabinet secretaries and made worse policy as a result and (2) Wiring everything through white house staff increases those individuals’ sometimes disabling exhaustion and leads to many important issues drifting because there isn’t the bandwith to micromanage them.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

One thought on “Opening Up the Cabinet”

  1. Very long hours worked routinely (not to meet genuine crises like Katrina and 9/11) don’t just put the health of the workers concerned at risk. I submit they also damage judgement; both by the direct effects of fatigue, and more insidiously by the loss of normal social life and the creation of a bunker mentality of factitious permanent crisis. This mentality is self-reinforcing: as normal departmental officials and independent experts are unlikely to share the insiders’ obsessions, say with the 24-hour news cycle, and say “I’ll get back to you on Monday”. And when the real experts do get back on Monday, they are more likely to say “nobody knows” and “do nothing”. Wrong answers! We must Do Something! And this is something!

    It’s no accident that many jobs, like commercial aircrew, where performance affects the safety of others are subject to strict limitations on hours. Junior hospital doctors are the peculiar exception. I take it that this is an anomalous and dangerous rite of passage – “we suffered to become well-paid consultants so you juniors have to put up with it as well”. War creates an exception here, as in other things. But then it’s a legitimate and obvious tactic to exhaust your adversaries.

    Over to Francis Bacon, sometime Lord Chancellor of England, in his essay Of Counsel:

    “Let us now speak of the inconveniences of counsel, and of the remedies. The inconveniences that have been noted in calling and using counsel are three. First, the revealing of affairs, whereby they become less secret. Secondly, the weakening of the authority of princes, as if they were less of themselves. Thirdly, the danger of being unfaithfully counselled, and more for the good of them that counsel than of him that is counselled. For which inconveniences, the doctrine of Italy, and practice of France, in some kings’ times, hath introduced cabinet counsels; a remedy worse than the disease.”

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