I’ve known Thomas Schelling for more than 30 years; he taught me economics at the Kennedy School, where I went largely as a result of reading his “Ecology of Micromotives” in college. But he continues to be full of surprises. I didn’t know until the other night that he’d worked for Clark Clifford and Averill Harriman in the Truman White House.
Reflecting on the grossly inadequate powers to be assigned to the new “intelligence czar” if the President has his way, Schelling reflected on the powers given Harriman when he took over the foreign aid account at the termination of the Marshall Plan: Harriman exercised all of the power normally exercised by the Budget Bureau (now OMB). As a result, the various pieces of Defense, State, Agriculture, and so on responsible for military and economic aid really had to pay attention to him. (Schelling told of frustrating a DoD plan to shuffle off a bunch of obsolete equipment to the Europeans.)
It’s hard to imagine that sort of arrangement today. The most that I’ve seen proposed for the Director of National Intelligence is that he or she have the last word about the budget numbers that get submitted to OMB.
Why is what was conceivable fifty years ago inconceivable today? Part of the answer must lie in the increasingly distinct institutional identities of some agencies within the Executive Office of the President, of which OMB is the most striking example. OMB is no longer part of the President’s staff in the sense that it was under Roosevelt or Truman, in part because it’s so much larger and in part because so much of it is now staffed by civil servants. OMB is much less likely to actively obstruct what the President wants than the Cabinet agencies are, but its acquiescence can’t simply be taken for granted, especially when its own powers are at stake.
Perhaps another part of the answer is that the crimes and blunders of the Nixon years, and the Congressional reaction to them, permanently weakened the Presidency by putting the other players in the system on their guard against the risk that a President will abuse whatever power is given him. Current abuses, which have started to peek through the surface despite the laxity of the press and the decision of the Republicans in Congress to abandon their oversight role, may further contribute to the process. The American Constitution, with what Neustadt called its system of “separated institutions sharing power,” requires for its proper functioning a voluntary observance of informal limits. That observance has been breaking down for a generation.
That’s a problem whose solution calls for bipartisan statesmanship, a commodity in remarkably short supply these days. The long-term forecast isn’t favorable.