How The White House Ate the Cabinet

The growth of white houses and the shrinking of cabinet secretaries are intimately linked political phenomena

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 a deputy 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. Continue reading “How The White House Ate the Cabinet”