A step down for Clinton and SchwarzeneggerPoint: Scott Lilly
The question of service by Sen. Hillary Clinton or Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the next administration raises in my mind a truly profound question about how our government has changed in recent decades and whether that change has gone too far. While Clinton and Schwarzenegger are as different as day and night in many respects, they raise very similar issues with respect to the role they might play in an Obama presidency.
Both are high-profile individuals who have a national following and a constituency that extends beyond that of the president himself. But given how the distribution of power within the executive branch has changed over the years, would such individuals be well used in a Cabinet post? Would it be worth it to them to exchange their current roles in public life to assume a Cabinet post? Would the president be willing to sacrifice the level of accountability that is required of other Cabinet members to attract them to such a position?
On Tuesday, David, you mentioned the book "Team of Rivals." It is hard to imagine in the context of today's government the latitude that Abraham Lincoln's Cabinet members had in defining policy and managing their departments. The Lincoln White House had no Office of Management and Budget, National Security Council, Domestic Policy Council, science advisor, drug czar or Council on Environmental Quality. Even as recently as World War I, Cabinet members decided on their own budgets requests to Congress without consultation with the White House or anyone else in the executive branch. Further, if they decided they needed more than Congress gave them, they merely went out and spent it and announced that the good faith and credit of the federal government was dependent on Congress paying the bill.
As recently as the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, Cabinet members were strong, independent forces in setting policies within the realm of the departments they oversaw. But since then, their power and independence has been steadily marginalized. In the current administration, few Cabinet members have meaningful input on their own budgets, and most are aware that public expression of their views about how OMB decisions will affect the agencies they supervise could easily result in their termination. Increasingly over the last 25 years, Cabinet members have seen their activities directed by White House staff, whose members are often less than half their age and with little life experience other than working in political campaigns. In some instances, the real work of the department is actually handled by deputy or assistant secretaries who are directed by the White House without consultation with the actual Cabinet member.
The Obama transition needs to think very carefully about how much power it is willing to invest in Cabinet officials and, conversely, how much power the White House will be willing to relinquish. In my mind, the current distribution of power in our executive branch makes it difficult to recruit qualified people to key positions and squanders Cabinet members' talents once they are recruited. Hopefully, the Obama administration will strike a better balance, but I will be surprised if it is willing to transfer enough authority out of the White House to make a Cabinet post attractive to people with the position and standing of either Schwarzenegger or Clinton.
Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, has served in numerous posts for members of Congress and the Democratic Party.
Paulson and Rumsfeld: a cautionary taleCounterpoint: David Weigel
I would have agreed more with your assessment two months ago, before Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was handed control of the commanding heights of the banking industry. And I would have agreed a lot more seven years ago, before the Iraq war empowered then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his undersecretaries to a degree not seen since, possibly, the heyday of Robert Strange McNamara. Future White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has said that you "never allow a crisis to go to waste," and an extension of that is that if a competent member of the Cabinet takes office during a crisis, he or she can wield Olympian levels of influence.
I don't know whether the Obama team wants to re-imagine the role of Cabinet secretaries by looking back to the 1950s. But you'd have to think that our current crises are going to force their hands and that they will give the most critical jobs in the Cabinet to people they can trust with a little free movement and slack -- while making sure that they won't actively obstruct any of Barack Obama's goals. This could be how celebrity fades as a factor in these appointments.
All that said, Clinton and Schwarzenegger are not being tipped for Treasury, Defense or State. There is no job that could lure Clinton into the Cabinet, and no job that her husband could possibly be satisfied with. If the president gets "Hail to the Chief," what's the entrance music for the husband of the secretary of Health and Human Services? I mean, besides "Calling Dr. Love"?
Schwarzenegger might be a possibility simply because he can't ever run for president. But what would be the purpose of getting him in the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Interior, as the rumor goes? The only function I can imagine would be an environmentalist update of the role he used to play on the President's Council for Physical Fitness, as a cheerleader for a policy he believes in but most people tune out unless there's a celebrity talking. That doesn't much excite me, but I like the idea of getting Schwarzenegger out of California, where somebody who actually understands how money works could take over for him. (No, you can't actually raise spending every year without collecting more revenue, and passing bond measures doesn't count. But thanks for playing.)
I don't generally like the expansion of executive authority that we've seen since the 1950s and with Barry Allen super-speed these last eight years. I'm heartened by the reports that Obama doesn't quite like it either and wants to erase some of President Bush's signing statements that collected more power at the White House.
But you have to look at the president/Cabinet secretary power relationship on a case-by-case basis. I believe that Bush's first and second secretaries of the Department of Housing and Urban Development were disasters, and their failings had as much to do with policy instruction from above -- pump up the homeownership numbers, no matter who's getting the homes -- as it did with their autonomous mistakes, like former Secretary Alphonso Jackson's blatant favoritism and sweet deals from Countrywide Financial. That leads me to be optimistic about something that on the surface sounds awful -- Obama's proposed White House Office of Urban Policy. The power of these secretaries should only expand in a crisis. The rest of the time, if things are working properly, it's all right for Cabinet members to be public faces of a top-down agenda.
Does this keep top talent away from the Cabinet? I really don't think so. This model of Cabinet-making seems to work fine for the politically ambitious, as you could learn from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (formerly at the Department of Energy), Sen. Mel Martinez (formerly at Housing and Urban Development) and Sen.-elect Mike Johanns (formerly at the Department of Agriculture). Such advancement opportunities are more than enough to entice most of the people who can do these jobs, even as the tasks get smaller.
David Weigel is an associate editor at Reason magazine, where he writes a column on national politics.