History Lesson

The Sorry Lot of a Bush Cabinet Secretary

They’ve been powerless since the 1700s. But Bush’s have it worse than most.

Thompson fields questions, but does Bush ask any?

Since the election, George W. Bush’s Cabinet has been hemorrhaging badly. John Ashcroft resigned from Justice, Don Evans from Commerce, Ann Veneman from Agriculture, Rod Paige from Education, Spencer Abraham from Energy, and Colin Powell from State. This spate of departures has set Washington abuzz with an urgent and serious question:

Who cares?

The recent headlines about these resignations have had a dutiful air—the whiff of events getting play because they’re supposed to be important, not because they actually are. Even Powell’s exit matters mainly as the denouement to a long-settled drama, not as a harbinger of any new direction in Bush’s foreign policy.

Why does the Cabinet seem so irrelevant? The Bush turnover isn’t the first time the question has arisen. 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.

The deterioration of the Cabinet as a consultative body actually began the day George Washington gave his farewell address. When Washington was president, the Cabinet wasan important decision-making entity. Then again, Washington had a small Cabinet: Thomas Jefferson at State, Alexander Hamilton at Treasury, and Henry Knox at the War Department, along with Attorney General Edmund Randolph (and some sources consider the postmaster general back then to have been part of the Cabinet as well). Because the president lacked other advisers, he naturally turned to these sages for guidance on major decisions, such as whether to accept a national bank and where to locate the federal capital.

But the Cabinet’s life as a true advisory body was short. Andrew Jackson used his Cabinet to reward political patrons, whom he proceeded to ignore. Instead he depended on what was called, in a term later promulgated widely, his “Kitchen Cabinet.” Thereafter, the Cabinet’s power ebbed and flowed depending on the president’s inclinations but rarely served as a key vehicle for policymaking. Abraham Lincoln, according to Shirley Anne Warshaw, author of Powersharing: White House-Cabinet Relations in the Modern Presidency, “sought to use the cabinet as a forum for policy discussions in a manner similar to the Washington presidency.” But even his Cabinet was known for the limits of its influence: According to a famous story, he polled his Cabinet in September 1862 on whether to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Everyone said no; Lincoln did it anyway.

Franklin Roosevelt probably buried the Cabinet for good with his creation of the Executive Office of the President. That institution, which included both the White House Office and the Bureau of the Budget, became the seat of presidential policymaking. Since FDR’s administration, the presidential staff has expanded relentlessly in both personnel and budget. The creation of offices such as the Council of Economic Advisers in 1946, the National Security Council in 1947, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in 1963, and numerous other offices provided institutional homes within the White House for more and more decisions that Cabinet departments used to handle.

To be sure, the Cabinet’s own expansion kept pace. 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 whose work could easily consume their waking hours even if they never saw the president except at the annual White House Christmas party. The Cabinet has become the rare institution, Lyndon Johnson’s aide George Reedy said, “in which the whole is less than the sum of its parts.”

Finally, the Cabinet has languished because the new post-World War II departments—along with some older ones such as Agriculture, Labor, and Commerce—have become mechanisms for powerful interest groups to stake their claims within the executive branch. The main constituency of the Commerce Department is the National Association of Manufacturers and similar groups; the Education Department (at least under Democrats) caters to the National Education Association. If a president doesn’t care about reform in an area, he can appoint an enemy of reform to head its department, as Bush did in naming Spencer Abraham to run the Energy Department, which Abraham had sponsored legislation to abolish. Ironically, though, if a president does want to focus on an issue, its Cabinet department will probably also get passed over since the White House will take over. When Bill Clinton tackled health-care reform, Hillary Clinton and Ira Magaziner led the effort, not Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. Not for nothing did Robert Reich—a longstanding Friend of Bill who surely hoped for a leading advisory role to the president—title his memoir of his stint as labor secretary Locked in the Cabinet.

For many years now, the fabled “Cabinet meeting” has fallen on hard times. Almost every president since FDR entered office vowing to restore “Cabinet government”; almost every one convened the body with diminishing frequency as his term progressed. (The last president to convene Cabinet meetings regularly was Eisenhower, who ceded substantial authority to his Cabinet on domestic issues because he himself didn’t care much about them.) “You get a seat at the table,” Berkeley political scientist Nelson Polsby says of Cabinet chiefs, “but the table doesn’t get used.”

So, what’s so new about Bush’s neglect of the Cabinet? Perhaps that it jumped the firewall that historically protected the “big four” positions—State, Defense, Treasury, and Justice—from marginality. Throughout Bush’s first term, many of these traditional power centers, notably Powell at State and Paul O’Neill and John Snow at Treasury, lost their customary influence to the White House, in particular to Vice President Dick Cheney. In the past, individual secretaries of state or treasury occasionally found themselves on the outs, but no other administration made tax cuts and war its signature issues while relying so little on those key officers. And even John Ashcroft at Justice, though he maintained a high profile, never insinuated himself into Bush’s inner councils. Of the big four, only Donald Rumsfeld proved to be an influential policymaker alongside Cheney.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the out-of-control administrations of Johnson and Nixon, Americans began to worry about the growth of presidential power. The Cabinet briefly regained some luster as an important check on White House clout. Under Nixon, after all, Attorney General Elliot Richardson had heroically refused to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, prompting the Saturday Night Massacre that hastened Nixon’s fall. Defense Secretary James Schlesinger famously ordered the military not to obey Nixon should he try to use armed force to stay in power after being impeached. But one White House veteran, commenting a few years later on the view that presidential power needed such restraints, strongly disagreed with the prevailing wisdom. “That’s what the press would like you to think, and many academics, but it wasn’t the organizational system that caused Watergate,” the official told political scientist Anthony J. Bennett. “… I believe that if you have cabinet government, you have chaos.”

The speaker was Dick Cheney.

Thanks to Jeffrey E. Cohen of Fordham University and Nelson W. Polsby of the University of California.