THE PRESIDENT'S CABINET: EVOLUTION, ALTERNATIVES, AND PROPOSALS FOR CHANGE
CRS Report for Congress
The President’s Cabinet: Evolution, Alternatives,
and Proposals for Change
September 12, 2000
Ronald C. Moe
Specialist in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
The President’s Cabinet: Evolution, Alternatives, and
Proposals for Change
The President’s Cabinet is an institution whose existence rests upon custom
rather than law. President George Washington found the Cabinet concept, a meeting
of departmental secretaries, to be useful, and all subsequent Presidents have followed
this precedent. Presidents have differed in their opinions as to the utility of the
Cabinet, but all have found some political and administrative strengths in its
This report discusses how membership in the Cabinet has changed over the
decades. The selection and removal processes are examined as well as commentary
on the Cabinet by persons who have been participants.
In this century, a whole host of sub-Cabinet groups have been created as
substitutes for full Cabinet sessions. The authority and configuration of these sub-
Cabinet groups (e.g., Council on Economic Policy) vary from administration to
administration and few institutions and sets of relationships have acquired permanent
status. A number of sub-Cabinet groups have staffs (e.g., National Security Council),
and it is these staffs that help provide some measure of institutional depth to the
Despite two centuries of criticism, the Cabinet remains a fixture in the
President’s political world. This report reviews criticisms directed at the Cabinet, and
the “reforms” offered to correct alleged deficiencies, and provides an assessment of
the utility of the Cabinet to successive Presidents. The Cabinet is retained because it
provides to the President: (1) political and managerial advice; (2) a forum for
interdepartmental conflict resolution; (3) a location where he can address most of the
executive branch and thereby enhance administrative coherence; and (4) a source of
political support for his programs and policies.
This report concludes with several observations on the nature of the Cabinet.
The Cabinet is not now, and is not likely to become, a body with collective
responsibility. Presidents cannot appropriately share their legal authority or
responsibilities with the Cabinet. Thus, there are inherent limitations to the Cabinet
that no reforms can alter or overcome. The Cabinet, its members, and its sub-groups
provide the President with an adaptive resource with which to manage the executive
branch of government.
Origin and Evolution.............................................1
Membership on the Cabinet........................................5
The Cabinet Meeting.............................................9
Informal and Formal Subgroups................................12
White House Staff..........................................16
Reinventing Government and the Cabinet.........................19
Utility of The Cabinet...........................................21
Political and Managerial Advice................................22
Interdepartmental Conflict Resolution
“Reforming” The Cabinet........................................25
The President’s Cabinet: Evolution, Alternatives,
and Proposals for Change
Origin and Evolution
The President’s Cabinet is an institution whose existence rests upon custom
rather than law.1 While the wording of Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, that
the President may require “... the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each
of the executive Departments,” clearly indicates the intention of the Framers that the
President was expected to seek the advice of his department heads, there was no
constitutional requirement that he meet with them either individually or collectively.
The Cabinet came into being because President George Washington found it
useful. He began meeting with his three departmental secretaries and the attorney
general in 1791, although it was not until 1793, during a crisis with France, that this
group acquired the popular name of “Cabinet.”2
While all subsequent Presidents have considered it necessary to meet with the
Cabinet, their attitudes toward the institution and its members have varied greatly.
Some Presidents have convened their Cabinet only for the most formal and routine
matters while others have relied heavily upon it for advice and support. Richard
Fenno has noted the absolute dependence of the Cabinet upon the President: “The
President’s power to use or not use it is complete and final. The Cabinet is his to use
when and if he wishes, and he cannot be forced into either alternative. He has the3
power of life or death over it at this point.”
The composition of the Cabinet from the beginning has reflected two critical
concepts promoted by the ascendent Federalist leadership. First, to meet the
problems facing the new republic, energy, they argued, must be the hallmark of the
1 The first time the Cabinet was recognized in statute law was on February 26, 1907, when
Congress provided for an increase in the salaries of heads of executive departments, who were
designated as “members of the President’s Cabinet.” 34 Stat. 935, 993.
2 Henry Barrett Learned, The President’s Cabinet: Studies in the Origin, Formation and
Structure of an American Institution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1912), Chapter 5.
Mary L. Hinsdale, A History of the President’s Cabinet (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Wahr, 1911).
3 Richard Fenno, The President’s Cabinet (New York: Random House, 1959), p. 29.
executive branch and such energy, leavened by law and shared powers, must be
centered in an institutionally strong President.4 In Federalist 70, Hamilton asserts:
Energy in the Executive is a leading character ... of good government .... A
feeble executive implies a feeble execution of government. A feeble execution is
but another phrase for a bad execution ... all men of sense will agree in the
necessity of an energetic Executive.
President Washington was not in any doubt that the heads of departments were
his agents when he wrote to the Comte de Moustier in May 1789: “The impossibility
that one man should be able to perform all the great business of the State, I take to
have been the reason for instituting the great Departments, and appointing officers
therein, to assist the Supreme Magistrate in discharging the duties of his trust.”5 The
issue took the form of a challenge to the President by Congress that he could not
dismiss anyone confirmed by the Senate from Office without first obtaining Senate
approval. In what has come down to us as the “Decision of 1789,”6 Congress, under
Madison’s leadership, retreated from this position and indicated to the President that
from the outset he could dismiss any officer, thus cementing the position of the7
President as chief of an integrated executive branch.
Second, the Cabinet reflects the Framers’ belief in the superiority of single
executives to manage departments over a plural executive arrangement. The Framers
turned away from grand theory and reflected instead upon their own experience in
waging the Revolutionary War against a global power and in attempting to run the
nation under the Articles of Confederation after the close of hostilities in 1781.8
4 For a general account of the intentions of the Framers with respect to the institutions of the
new republic, consult: Martin Diamond, The Founding of the Democratic Republic (Itasca,
IL: F.E. Peacock Publishers, 1981).
5 George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, ed., John C. Fitzpatrick, vol. 30
(Washington: GPO, 1939), p. 334.
6 For a discussion of the “Decision of 1789,” consult, Leonard D. White, The Federalists
(New York: Macmillan, 1948), pp. 20-25, also: Louis Fisher, Constitutional Conflicts
Between Congress and the President, 4th rev. ed. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas,
7 With respect to fundamental authorities and lines of accountability, the executive branch has
never been a pristine unity. From the decision of the first Congress to give the comptroller
in the Treasury department a substantial degree of legal autonomy within the department, (1
Annals of Congress, (1789), p. 164), down to the present day “independent prosecutors”
functioning in an uneasy relationship with the executive branch, not all officers have been
directly accountable to the President. Katy J. Harriger, “Separation of Powers and the Politics
of Independent Counsels,” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 109, summer 1994: 261-86. Louis
Fisher, “The Independent Counsel Statute,” in Mark Rozell and Clyde Wilcox, eds., The
Clinton Scandal and the Future of American Government (Washington: Georgetown
University Press, 2000), pp. 60-80. These exceptions notwithstanding, the prevailing
organizational norm has historically been toward an executive branch and its officers
accountable to the President.
8 “[T]he advantages of single-headed control [of departments] had been so conclusively
Their personal experiences became the crucible for political thought. This was
particularly true for Alexander Hamilton, who found his administrative experiences
with plural executives during the Confederation period to have been extremely
frustrating. In 1780 Hamilton stated:
A single man, in each department of the administration would be greatly
preferable. It would give us a chance for more knowledge, more activity, more
responsibility and, of course, more zeal and attention. Boards partake of a part of
the inconveniences of larger assemblies. Their decisions are slower, their energy
less, their responsibility more diffused. They will not have the same abilities and9
knowledge as an administration of a single man.
One of the first orders of business for the new Congress in 1789 was the
establishment of executive departments. Three “organic” statutes were passed10
creating three “great” departments: Treasury, State, and War. A fourth department,
a Department of Home Affairs, was considered and abandoned; the functions likely
to have resided in that department were assigned to the other three departments. All
the particular functions of the newly created executive branch, save that of11
prosecuting the laws and delivering the mails, were assigned these departments.
As noted above, President Washington assembled his department secretaries for
advice and counsel and, in 1793, this informal group became popularly referred to as
the Cabinet. In addition to the three secretaries (after 1798 there was a fourth
secretary representing the new Department of the Navy), the President received legal
advice from an Attorney General. The Attorney General was a private lawyer on
retainer ($1,500 annually) to the federal government. The Attorney General
subsequently became a full-time officer of the United States and finally the head of the
newly created Department of Justice in 1870.12
As for the Postmaster General, he was the head of the Post Office, although not
a member of the Cabinet until 1829. The Post Office became an executive department
demonstrated that when the first Congress under the new Constitution began consideration of
administrative organization in 1789, serious objections were raised against the establishment
of single-headed administrative departments in only one instance; namely in connection with
a finance department.” Lloyd M. Short, The Development of National Administration in the
United States (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1923), chapter 9.
9 Alexander Hamilton, The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed., J.C. Hamilton, 7vols. (New
York: John F. Throw, 1850-1851), vol. I, pp. 154-55.
10 Discussion of the acts creating the three “great departments” may be found in James Hart,
The American Presidency in Action, 1789: A Study in Constitutional History (New York:
Macmillan Company, 1948), chapter 7.
11 For a discussion of the administrative philosophy and practices that guided the early
development of the United States government, consult: White, The Federalists. See also:nd
Lynton K. Caldwell, The Administrative Theories of Hamilton and Jefferson, 2 ed. (New
York: Holmes and Meier, 1988).
12 John A. Fairlie, The National Administration of the United States (New York: Macmillan
Co., 1905), chapter 9.
in 1872 (17 Stat. 283), a status it held until 1971, when it was redesignated by
Congress as “an independent establishment of the executive branch.”13 The position
of Postmaster General was consequently removed from the Cabinet. The first major
addition to the list of executive departments was the Department of the Interior in
The point to be recognized, however, is that as functions were assumed by the
federal government, they were assigned to new or existing departments, thereby
retaining the essential unitary basis for the executive branch. Prior to 1860, only four
permanent “detached agencies” were created: the Library of Congress, the
Smithsonian Institution, the Botanic Garden, and the Government Printing Office.15
For the first century of the republic, therefore, the executive branch, with few
exceptions, consisted of departments headed by single administrators under the
authority of the President.
There are presently (2000) some 14 departments in the executive branch, the
most recent department to be established being the Department of Veterans Affairs
(1988). The departments represented on the Cabinet with their date of establishment
(1)Department of Agriculture (1889)
(2)Department of Commerce (1903, 1913)16
(3)Department of Defense (1789,1949)17
(4)Department of Education (1979)
(5)Department of Energy (1977)
(6)Department of Health and Human Services (1953,1980)18
(7)Department of Housing and Urban Development (1965)
(8)Department of the Interior (1849)
(9)Department of Justice (1870)
(10)Department of Labor (1903, 1913)19
(11)Department of State (1789)
13 Gerald Cullinan, The United States Postal Service (New York: Praeger, 1973).
14 Short, National Administrative Organization, chapter 9.
15 U.S. Congress, Committee on Governmental Affairs, The Federal Executive Establishment:
Evolution and Trends, by Ronald C. Moe, Committee print, 96th Cong., 2nd sess.
(Washington: GPO, 1980), p. 3.
16 A Department of Commerce and Labor was established in 1903. After 10 years, and the
election of Woodrow Wilson, Congress approved the separation of this joint department into
two separate departments; one for commerce and the other for labor. Short, National
Administrative Organization, chapter 29.
17 The War department, established in 1789, was reorganized in 1947 into the National
Military Establishment which, in turn, was redesignated the Department of Defense by
Congress in 1949.
18 The Department of Health, Education and Welfare was established in 1953. The
department was renamed as the Department of Health and Human Services in 1979.
19 See footnote 8.
(12)Department of Transportation (1966)
(13)Department of the Treasury (1789)
(14)Department of Veterans Affairs (1988)
The Cabinet today is alternately viewed with despair and hope. Self-described
“realists” say that the Cabinet, both collectively and as a shorthand way of referring
to the 14 departmental secretaries individually, is an institution of limited utility and
not likely to change. Self-described “reformers,” on the other hand, still seek a
formula that will elevate the Cabinet, both collectively and individually, to a primary
role as advisor to the President. The debate over the proper role for the Cabinet is
now more than two centuries old and shows no signs of being resolved. For most
Presidents at least, it is more a problem to be lived with than solved.
Membership on the Cabinet
Traditionally, membership on the Cabinet has consisted of the secretaries of the
several executive departments, the present number being 14. From the beginning,
however, Presidents have accorded to others the privilege of attending and
participating in Cabinet meetings. Although Vice Presidents were from time to time
invited to attend, it was not until President Warren Harding invited Vice President
Calvin Coolidge in 1921 to be a regular attendee and to preside in his absence that the
Vice President has been recognized as a member of the Cabinet.20
President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated the practice of designating certain
positions as having “Cabinet rank.” This special status is not recognized in law and
is purely a presidential distinction that can be given and later withdrawn. The number
of positions assigned Cabinet rank has varied over time but has included, among
others, the Ambassador of the United States to the United Nations, the Director of
the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Special Trade Representative.
In the case of the Director of OMB and the Special Trade Representative, both have
been given the rank for pay purposes of Executive Level I, the rank assigned
Cabinet rank may be assigned to individuals as well as to positions. Thus, recent
Presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon, have designated individuals as “counselor
to the President,” (e.g., Daniel P. Moynihan by Nixon and Hedley Johnson by Jimmy
Carter). For the most part, such designations are given to individuals the President
desires to have nearby for advice, although they only occasionally have a portfolio of
20 George Haynes, The Senate of the United States: Its History and Practice, 2v. (Boston:
Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1938), vol. 1, p. 225.
21 President Bill Clinton designated a number of positions as having “honorary Cabinet
status,” although the positions may not be assigned Executive Level I compensation. In
addition to the three positions noted in the text, the following positions were designated in
Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency; (4) Administrator, Federal Emergency
Management Agency; (5) Chairman, Council of Economic Advisers; (6) Director, Office of
Drug Control Policy; and (7) Administrator, Small Business Administration.
responsibilities. The title of “counselor” may also serve as a consolation prize by
which a President can, as a face-saving gesture, ease a person out of some other
position. In 2000, President Clinton had one person designated as counselor, Ann F.
Historically, staff aides to the President, including the chief of staff, have not
been members of the Cabinet and have not sat at the Cabinet table. Rather, staff
members may have been invited to the meeting but occupied chairs located at the side
of the Cabinet room. The President may invite others from time to time (e.g., Under
Secretary of the Treasury for Monetary Affairs), if the subject to be discussed
warrants their inclusion. The Cabinet remains, however, ultimately what it has always
been, a creation of the President’s will and style.
While Presidents enjoy a degree of deference in the appointment process for
departmental secretaries, it has become increasingly difficult for nominees to be
confirmed without controversy. The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducts
rigorous character and security checks prior to the submission of names. Standards
and expectations for public officials are higher than in the past, and large numbers of
would-be appointees never make it through the White House Personnel Office to the22
nominee stage. If they successfully navigate the White House political and security
minefields, they are then subject to confirmation by the Senate, which has its own
capabilities to generate additional information and perspective on appointees.23
Notwithstanding these recent developments, only 19 Cabinet nominations have
failed to be confirmed since 1789. Nine were rejected on the floor of the Senate,
seven withdrawn by the President, and three died in committee In addition, two
Cabinet nominations were announced but never submitted to the Senate. Of the
Cabinet nominations rejected on the floor of the Senate, one nominee, Caleb Cushing
was rejected three times in 1843 to be Secretary of the Treasury while a second
nominee, Charles Warren, was rejected twice in 1925 to be Attorney General.24 In
one instance, a nominee, former Vice President Henry Wallace, was rejected by a
committee to be Secretary of Commerce but later confirmed by a vote of the full
At least seven Cabinet nominations have been withdrawn by Presidents, the most
recent occurrence being in October 1997. President Clinton withdrew the name of
his nominee, Herschel Gober, to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs, an action
previously taken in 1993 with respect to his nominee, Zoë Baird, to be Attorney
22 For a discussion of the pre-nomination processes, consult: Calvin Mackenzie, The Politics
of Presidential Appointments (New York: The Free Press, 1981). Thomas Weko, The
Politicizing Presidency: The White House Personnel Office, 1948-1994 (Lawrence, KS:
University Press of Kansas, 1995).
23 For a somewhat dated but still useful overview of the Senate’s confirmation process,
consult: Joseph P. Harris, The Advice and Consent of the Senate: A Study of the Confirmation
of Appointments by the United States Senate (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953).
24 The Cushing and Warren rejections are discussed in Louis C. James, “Senatorial Rejections
of Presidential Nominations to the Cabinet: A Study in Constitutional Custom,” Arizona Law
Review, vol. 3, winter 1961: 232-261.
General. Three Cabinet nominations died in committee, the most recent being the
1996 nomination of Michael Kantor to be Secretary of Commerce. The Senate
committee simply declined to hold hearings. In addition, two Cabinet nominees had
their nomination withheld by the President prior to formal submission to the Senate.
In one instance, disclosure of the name of Kimba Wood to be Attorney General,
generated media controversy sufficient to induce the President to issue a statement
withdrawing Wood’s name from consideration.25 Similarly, the President had
announced his intention in 1993 to nominate Bobby R. Inman to be Secretary of
Defense, replacing Les Aspin. The adverse political reaction was such that the
President determined that submitting his name formally was a futile gesture.
Traditionally, when a President wanted to maximize the likelihood that a nominee
would be confirmed, he would select a Member of Congress. Even this strategy is no
longer a sure route to success, however, as the 1989 rejection of former Senator John
Tower to be Secretary of Defense attests.26
Members of the Cabinet, like most other presidential appointees, serve at the
pleasure of the President. Presidents can (and have) “fired” Cabinet secretaries, the
most striking recent instance being in 1979 when President Carter required that all 12
Cabinet secretaries, plus 21 other officials, submit their resignations. He accepted the
resignations of secretaries Joseph Califano (Health, Education and Welfare), Michael
Blumenthal (Treasury), and Brock Adams (Transportation), all generally viewed as
effective administrators, but all also viewed by the White House staff as failing to be
Historically, membership in the Cabinet has been diverse within the cultural
context of the period. The single most constant factor in the selection process over
the years has been partisan affiliation.28 Presidents generally confine their list of
potential Cabinet members to persons affiliated with their own party. A Republican
President will occasionally select a Democrat to head an executive department, but
this is an exceptional event, and the situation is the same with Democratic Presidents.
The most recent instance of a President reaching to the opposing party for a
departmental secretary occurred in January 1997 when President Clinton nominated
former Republican Senator William Cohen of Maine to be his Secretary of Defense.
The political considerations present in selecting members of the Cabinet tend to
reflect the two basic approaches to the Cabinet as an institution. First, there are
factors that influence a President when viewing the Cabinet collectively. Presidents
25 Shortly after the name of Kimba Wood was leaked to the press as the President’s nominee
for Attorney General, the President issued a statement that Wood had withdrawn as a
candidate. “Statement of Withdrawal of Kimba Wood as a Candidate for Attorney General,”
Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, vol. 29, no. 5, Feb. 8, 1993, p. 154.
26 “Tower Nomination Spurned by Senate,” 1989 CQ Almanac (Washington: CQ Press,
27 Dom Bonafede, “Carter Moves Boldly to Save His Presidency,” National Journal, July 28,
28 Jeffrey Cohen, The Politics of the U.S. Cabinet: Representation in the Executive Branch,
seek a “representative” Cabinet in the sense that it represents to the public where their
priorities lie. The factors playing a role in the selection process include, but are not
limited to, partisan affiliation, ideology, gender, geography, friendship, ethnicity,
interest group support, and professional reputation. The managerial competency
factor appears to play a relatively minor role.
When the Cabinet is not viewed as simply a collectivity tied to the President’s
political interests, however, but as the sum total of individual department secretaries
who have as part of their job descriptions periodic meetings in the White House, the
factors influencing the selection process differ in emphasis, if not in kind. Experience
and managerial competence will often be considered as a factor in the selection
process if the discussion centers on the needs of the department and its programs,
rather than on the aggregate political fortunes of the President. The more prestigious
the department, the more likely that some measure of demonstrated competence will
be expected. Thus, the Secretary of State is generally expected to be a person with
considerable international experience. As with all generalizations, however, there
have been notable exceptions, as when Woodrow Wilson selected William Jennings
Bryan to be his Secretary of State in 1913.29
While Presidents have generally been involved in the selection process for
Cabinet officers, President Clinton stood apart by his very public pledge to commit
his time and prestige to the process. The goal in this instance was to appoint a
Cabinet that reflected his definition of ethnic and gender “diversity.”30 The process
and the nominations submitted were not without their problems and political risks,
however, as evidenced by the withdrawal of two nominees for Attorney General.
President Clinton found, as had most of his predecessors, that they personally knew
relatively few persons fully capable of performing the responsibilities of department
secretaries and whose past could withstand close public scrutiny. Cabinet
appointments, in short, rarely add substantively to a President’s political capital and
may inflict considerable harm.
The first set of Cabinet appointments in a new administration tends to favor
interests that were instrumental in the candidate’s electoral success. Often these
appointments are disappointments to the President, particularly if they appear to be
more responsive to the interests from whence they came than to the President. Also,
initial appointments are more likely to become ambassadors to the President from the
departments rather, than the reverse. All in all, experience suggests that as an
administration ages, Presidents weigh personal and party loyalty more heavily in their
29 President Wilson found his first Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, to be
“incompetent” and his second, Robert Lansing, to be “inept,” thereby reinforcing Wilson’s
reliance on Colonel Edward M. House as his intimate advisor on international affairs. Arthur
S. Link, The Higher Realism of Woodrow Wilson, (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University
Press, 1971), pp. 83-85.
30 Gwen Ifill, “Clinton Completes Cabinet and Points to Its Diversity,” New York Times, Dec.
24, 1992, p. A-1. Shirley Anne Warshaw, Powersharing: White House - Cabinet Relations
in the Modern Presidency (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996), chapter
selections than initially.31 Moreover as an Administration’s tenure draws to a close,
Presidents occasionally will promote career executives or relatively unknown, but
competent and politically safe, administrators to serve as Cabinet members until the
Administration completes its term.
The Cabinet Meeting
The very name “Cabinet” suggests a collective concept. This title, however, is
misleading. The Cabinet in the United States is simply a gathering of individuals,
selected by the President to perform specified responsibilities, who exhibit no32
collective responsibility and little collective consciousness. The Cabinet never
resigns en masse simply because Congress has rejected one of the President’s
proposals, nor do they feel an obligation to come to the aid of one of their number
when that individual may be political trouble. The single common thread to the
members of the Cabinet is their loyalty to the President who appointed them.
Since the Cabinet is not a statutory body, its use has varied greatly over time,
depending upon the practices and philosophy of the particular President. We know
that President Washington placed great reliance upon his Cabinet members both
individually and collectively.33 In the 19th century, a number of Presidents, in the
absence of a White House staff, came to rely upon individual executive department
secretaries for policy advice, administrative assistance, and political support. Some
Presidents went outside their official Cabinet and formed “kitchen cabinets” as
sources of advice and support.
In the 20th century, the Cabinet has experienced a not-so-gradual decline in its
political and administrative relevance to the President. This decline has not been a
straight line, however, as several Presidents (e.g., Jimmy Carter) have attempted to
resurrect the Cabinet, and particularly the Cabinet meeting, as a forum for serious
policy discussion.34 Regardless of good intentions, however, the institutional Cabinet
31 James D. King and James W. Riddlesperger, “Presidential Cabinet Appointments: The
Partisan Factor,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 14, spring 1984: 231-237.
32 Louis Brownlow had this to say about the collective consciousness of the Cabinet. “Each
[member] feels his responsibility—as indeed it is—personally to the President and not to the
President in Council nor to the President and his Cabinet, and above all not to his Cabinet
colleagues.” (Emphasis in the original) The President and the Presidency (Chicago: Public
Administration Service, 1949), p. 100.
33 Learned, The President’s Cabinet, pp. 47, 119.
34 President Jimmy Carter was influenced early on by the recommendations by Stephen Hess
made in person and in his book that he create a “cabinet government.” Organizing the
Presidency. (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1976), chapter 11. Carter did try to
follow Hess’s recommendations, but soon retreated. Hess himself later backed away from hisnd
advocacy of “cabinet government.” See: Organizing the Presidency, 2 ed. (Washington,
The Brookings Institution, 1988).
As for Cabinet meetings, in a symbolic gesture against alleged “secrecy in government,”
has simply not responded to most efforts to “reform” its character. The truth is that
matters of high government policy are rarely raised at Cabinet meetings by the
President or any of those present. Even with respect to questions of high politics to
which, presumably, the collective wisdom of the Cabinet might be properly directed,
Presidents rarely avail themselves of this opportunity. President Franklin Roosevelt,
for instance, never raised the issue of the soundness and political viability of his
“court-packing bill” with the Cabinet, although such a body might have given him
useful advice. Nor were issues connected with World War I discussed at Wilson
The Cabinet meeting belongs to the President. The President sets the agenda for
the meeting. Individual Cabinet members may be asked to present reports of general
interest (and not so general interest) concerning their respective fields of
responsibility. Members tend to be reluctant to raise problems concerning their own
departments for general discussion. According to memoirs of some attendees at these
meetings, all too often the meetings become fora for the weakest members to expound
their views.35 What usually happens is that the Cabinet meeting is a prelude to a line-
up of individual department secretaries who want to see the President alone. Jesse
Jones, one of the more colorful Cabinet members of the Roosevelt years, said: “My
principal reason for not having a great deal to say at Cabinet meetings was that there
was no one at the table who could be of help to me except the President, and when
I needed to consult him, I did not choose a Cabinet meeting to do so.”36
President Dwight Eisenhower determined upon taking office to bring some
structure to Cabinet meetings and White House staff work generally. Cabinet
meetings were regularly scheduled on a weekly basis with a predistributed agenda,
minutes, and follow-up action report. A small Cabinet secretariat was created, not
only to provide institutional support for meetings but also to serve an activist
troubleshooting role. The Cabinet secretary was expected to seek out problems that
Carter announced he was considering “opening the Cabinet meetings” to press coverage, a
proposal that met with skepticism and scorn by some, even in his own administration. Edward
Walsh, “Carter Might Open Meetings of Cabinet to Press Coverage,” Washington Post, Feb.
1, 1977, p. A-2. The proposal was withdrawn within days, as was his idea to make the
Cabinet minutes public. Edward Walsh, “Coverage of Cabinet Meetings Barred,”
Washington Post, Feb. 13, 1977, p. A-20. “Minutes of Cabinet Won’t Be Disclosed,”
Washington Post, April 6, 1977, p. A-18.
Carter’s loss of confidence in the Cabinet is reflected in the declining frequency of their
occurrlence as the administration aged. During the first year Carter met with his Cabinet
every week, every other week during his second year, once a month during his third year, and
sporadically during his final year. George C. Edwards III and Stephen J. Wayne, Presidentialth
Leadership: Politics and Policy Making, 4 ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p. 205.
35 Harold Ickes, The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953-
36 Jesse Jones and Edward Angly, Fifty Billion Dollars (New York: DaCapo Press, 
were ripe for resolution at the Cabinet level.37 This attempt to institutionalize certain
Cabinet related functions was both praised and criticized. To supporters, it was
merely common sense to have organized meetings, record-taking, and systematic
follow-up actions. To critics, however, it was unproductive procedure amounting to
tidiness for its own sake. After Eisenhower’s 1958 heart attack and the departure of
Maxwell Rabb, the first Cabinet secretary, there was some movement away from the
highly structured Cabinet meetings.
Eisenhower’s successors, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, lost little time in
dismantling the institutionalized Cabinet, even eliminating the position of Cabinet
secretary. President Kennedy reputedly commented: “Cabinet meetings are simply
useless. Why should the Postmaster General sit there and listen to a discussion of the
problems of Laos?”38 Not surprisingly, Kennedy held Cabinet meetings as seldom as
possible. He was openly critical of his predecessor’s structured approach to
decisionmaking preferring instead to rely on individuals—staff and otherwise—
whom he trusted most, irrespective of their responsibilities or position. Under
Kennedy, the White House staff began to grow, with individual staff members
increasingly becoming political personalities and powers in their own right. President
Johnson tended to use Cabinet meetings as opportunities for one-way conversations
and to promote the appearance of political consensus within his administration.
President Richard Nixon was marginally more concerned with building structured
decisionmaking than Kennedy and Johnson, but his views on the value of Cabinet
meetings still remained closer to his immediate predecessors than to Eisenhower.
President Gerald Ford, however, discerned value in providing some structure to
his management decisionmaking and reinstituted the Cabinet secretariat, which has
remained in operation, in some form, since that time. Ford also determined that at
least part of the cause for the Watergate debacle lay with Nixon’s over-reliance upon
personal staff whose only formal responsibility was to serve the President’s political
interests. This narrow focus tended to distort the type of advice given the President
and was easily corrupted. The departmental secretaries, meeting individually with the
President or in Cabinet, provided a useful antidote to any arrogant attitudes that might
be assumed by White House staffers.
Presidents work today within rigid time constraints on complex subjects that
need to be translated into relatively simple political terms. Such problems do not lend
themselves to long discussions by generalists in a Cabinet setting. Additionally,
Cabinet meetings involve a relatively large number of people so that the ability to
control leaks to the press is limited. The White House staff, on the other hand, is in
close physical proximity to the Oval Office and tends to share the presidential
perspective, which rarely goes beyond the next congressional or presidential election.
The meeting of the Cabinet, no matter how it is “reformed” by a particular President,
37 For a detailed description of the efforts by President Eisenhower to institutionalize some of
the Cabinet functions, see: Fenno, The President’s Cabinet, chapters 3 and 4; Bradley H.
Patterson, Jr., The President’s Cabinet: Issues and Questions (Washington: American Society
for Public Administration, 1976); and Fred I. Greenstein, The Hidden-Hand Presidency (New
York: Basic Books, 1982).
38 Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., A Thousand Days (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1965), p. 688.
remains only one among many options available to a President in seeking advice, in
providing administrative direction to the executive branch, and in developing political
support for policy initiatives.
Informal and Formal Subgroups
Presidents, recognizing the limitations inherent in the institutionalized Cabinet,
have long sought alternative ways to provide themselves with advice and political
support. Before Presidents had substantial White House Office staffs, they frequently
turned to informal groups for advice. The first and most famous informal cabinet was
Andrew Jackson’s “kitchen cabinet,” a group of friends and newspapermen with39
whom he felt comfortable. Jackson reportedly met with his Cabinet only 16 times
in eight years.40 Later Presidents had their informal advisers given names such as
Grover Cleveland’s “fishing cabinet,” Herbert Hoover’s “medicine ball cabinet,” and
Franklin Roosevelt’s “brain trust.” With the development of White House staffs,
however, and the growing complexity of issues, the appeal of “kitchen cabinets” has
In the post-World War II period, Presidents have experimented with sub-Cabinet42
groups as a substitute for full Cabinet sessions. The best known sub-Cabinet group
is the National Security Council (NSC), established by law in 1947.43 Formally, the
NSC consists of the President, Vice President, and the Secretaries of State and
39 Richard P. Longaker, “Was Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet a Cabinet?” Mississippi Valley
Historical Review, vol. 44, June 1957: 94-108.
40 Gordon Hoxie, “The Cabinet in the American Presidency,” Presidential Studies Quarterly,
vol. 14, spring 1984, p. 217.
41 Just as “kitchen cabinets” have lost their appeal, so have close individual non- official
advisors to Presidents. It is unlikely that there will be in the future another relationship
between a President and a private citizen to rival that of President Woodrow Wilson and
Colonel Edward Mandell House. The reasons for the retreat from informal advisors and
advisory groups appear two-fold. First, the complexity, intensity, and rapidity of events today
simply makes it unlikely that outsiders can gain ascendency over the nuances of issues to the
degree possible by “insiders.” Second, the media are more probing than in the past and look
with suspicion upon the acquisition of influence by outsiders of any sort.
42 For an overview of the varieties of sub-Cabinet-level groups created during the post-War
decades, consult: Patterson, The President’s Cabinet: Issues, pp. 87-98. Colin Campbell,
Managing the Presidency: Carter, Reagan, and the Search for Executive Harmony (Pittsburgh,
PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986), chapters 2, 5.
43 50 U.S.C. 402. U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, Richard A.
Best Jr., and Mark M. Lowenthal, The National Security Council: An Organizational
Assessment, CRS report, 93-517F (Washington: May 12, 1993). Kevin V. Mulcahy and
Cecil V. Crabbe, “Presidential Management of National Security Policy-Making, 1947-1987,”
in The Managerial Presidency, James P. Pfiffner, ed. (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks-Cole,
Defense, with the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff as advisers. It is intended to be highest-level advisory body to
the President on military and international affairs. Once again, the formal NSC itself
does not make collective decisions. It meets at the President’s request, but the real
contribution of the NSC is found in the work of its staff. The staff is a unit with
foreign policy expertise and has been influential when the President has appointed a
national security adviser to whom he is particularly close (e.g., Henry Kissinger with
President Nixon, appreciative of the strengths of the NSC, wanted a similar type
organization for the domestic side of presidential responsibilities. In April 1969, the
President established the President’s Advisory Council on Executive Organization
(known popularly as the Ash Council, after its chairman, Roy L. Ash), to recommend
changes in Executive Office organization and in the organization of the executive
branch generally.44 During the period when the Ash Council was meeting, in 1969
and 1970, the White House staff emerged as the dominant force within the
presidential advisory orbit. Aware of this trend, and in general agreement, the Ash
Council recommended to the President that he submit a reorganization plan to
Congress that would establish a Domestic Council and reconstitute the Bureau of the
Budget, changing its name to the Office of Management and Budget. In his message
to Congress accompanying the plan, the President noted that the reorganization plan
established a Domestic Council with an institutional staff to coordinate policy
formulation in the domestic arena. To a considerable degree, it was intended to be45
the domestic counterpart to the National Security Council.
Formally, the Domestic Council was composed of the President, the Vice
President, the Attorney General and the Secretaries of the Treasury; Interior;
Agriculture; Commerce; Labor; Health, Education and Welfare; and Transportation.
The President could also designate persons to serve on the council relevant to the
issue at hand. The key to the council was its staff, located in the Executive Office and
headed by an assistant to the President. The expectation was that ad hoc groups of
departmental representatives would meet and formulate policy options for the
President, supported by a small, elite staff corps based at the White House. The
growth in the staff of the Domestic Council during the years 1970 through 1972
44 As a result of the Ash Council recommendations, President Nixon submitted four bills to
Congress which would have abolished seven existing departments (i.e., Agriculture; Interior;
Commerce; Health, Education and Welfare; Housing and Urban Development; Labor; and
Transportation) and created in their place four new departments (i.e., Human Resources;
Community Development; Natural Resources; and Economic Development). Additionally,
the functions of a number of independent agencies were to be absorbed within the new
departments. U.S. Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget,
Papers Relating to the President’s Departmental Reorganization Program (Washington: GPO,
Reorganization: A Summary Analysis, H. Report 922, 92 Cong., 2 sess. (Washington:
45 U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Government Operations, Disapproving
Reorganization Plan No. 2 of 1970, H. Report 1066, 91st Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington: GPO,
Political Science Quarterly, vol. 92, summer 1977: 281-304.
reflected the utility of the approach at the time. By the election of 1972, the council
had 66 persons on the staff, divided into six substantive policy units, each with an
Initially, the Domestic Council staff and subcommittees worked reasonably well.
They studied issues and provided background option papers. The dynamics of White
House life intruded on the Council and its staff, however: there were fewer and fewer
meetings and less longer-term planning. Peri Arnold concluded: “[T]he Domestic
Council never quite fulfilled the expectations of the Ash Council. Far from being a
mechanism for policy formulation, the Domestic Council became a large staff for
Presidential errands, admittedly increasing Presidential reach but often providing little46
analytic or formulative capacity over policy.” The President’s short-term political
needs simply displaced any efforts to develop an institutionalized policy process
within the White House.
In 1974, the Ford transition team concluded that there was a useful role for the
Domestic Council and its staff, and Ford named his new Vice President, Nelson
Rockefeller, to be the vice chairman of the Domestic Council and to head the staff.
This decision, however, quickly drew opposition from the President’s chief of staff,
Donald Rumsfeld, because, in effect, there would now be a “two-track” system for
political and policy advice for to the President. This arrangement lasted but a short
time, with Vice President Rockefeller opting to forego his role as “chief” of the
Domestic Council staff.47
President Jimmy Carter ended the Domestic Council experiment but maintained
the Domestic Council staff, renaming it the Domestic Policy Staff, and having it
headed by a single administrator. The staff has undergone several organizational and
name changes in subsequent years (President Ronald Reagan changed the title to the
Office of Policy Development (OPD); President Bush to the Domestic Policy Council
(DPC)), but the unit still retains a separate statutory status and account in the
In 1973, President Nixon made a second attempt to alter the character of the
Cabinet. Disappointed that Congress had “rejected” his legislative proposals to
reorganize the seven domestic departments into four larger departments, Nixon
decided early in his second term to accomplish much the same objective through
administratively creating a “super-cabinet” comprised of three departmental
secretaries (Agriculture; Health, Education and Welfare; and Housing and Urban
Development) who would be designated “counselors” as well as department
46 Peri E. Arnold, Making the Managerial Presidency: Comprehensive Reorganization
Planning, 1905-1996, 2nd ed. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998), p. 298.
47 Ronald C. Moe, “The Domestic Council in Perspective,” The Bureaucrat, vol. 5, Oct. 1976:
48 Margaret Jane Wyszomirski, “A Domestic Policy Office: Presidential Agency in Search of
a Role,” Policy Studies Journal, vol. 12, June 1984: 705-18. Colin Campbell, “The White
House and Presidency Under the ‘Let’s Deal’ President,” in The Bush Presidency: First
Appraisals, eds., Colin Campbell and Bert A. Rockman (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House
Publishers, 1991), pp. 185-222.
secretaries, and who would also have offices in the White House.49 These counselors
were to be given responsibility for initiating and coordinating broad policy initiatives
that cut across departmental lines. Each counselor was to have a small staff under the50
“oversight” of an assistant to the President. The other domestic departmental
secretaries would definitely be relegated to an “outer cabinet.” This experiment with
a “super cabinet” was abandoned almost as soon as it was announced, the first
casualty of the Watergate debacle that would soon consume the President and his
White House staff.
Presidents Reagan and Bush made little pretense of promoting a Cabinet
government. What President Reagan did do, however, at the urging of one of his top
aides, Edwin Meese, was to create a set of seven Cabinet councils as working groups.
Each council was assigned a specific substantive area to cover; (e.g., economic affairs,
agriculture).51 The idea was to have Cabinet members and their deputies concentrate
on those areas of special concern to themselves or to their department. Each council
was provided some modest staff assistance. The Cabinet council system worked
reasonably well in Reagan’s first term but gradually lost steam. Once Meese left the
White House to become Attorney General, the seven councils became two councils
(Council on Domestic Policy and Economic Policy Council), with few meetings and
relatively little impact on presidential decision-making.
Under President George Bush, the two policy councils remained and were the
forum for issues that cut across departmental lines. Both councils, as well as the full
Cabinet, were supported by staff from a small Office of Cabinet Affairs, which viewed
its task as being that “of an ‘honest broker’ between Cabinet secretaries and between
the Cabinet and the White House staff in—other words, to make certain that the
President understood without prejudice or bias or distortion what it was the Cabinet52
was doing, what they were concerned about, what proposals they wanted made.”
The Bush administration experience tended to reinforce the view that the Cabinet
itself was ill suited for substantive policy development and, that insofar as Cabinet-
level input to the President was useful, it was best provided in the setting of Cabinet53
sub-groups or councils.
President Clinton meets with his Cabinet infrequently: just twice in 1998 and five
times in 1999. Like his recent predecessors, Clinton relies more on his White House
staff than on Cabinet secretaries for both policy advice and political appointee
recommendations. With respect to the Cabinet itself, Clinton has delegated to his
49 Richard Waterman, Presidential Influence and the Administrative Presidency (New York:
John Wiley and Sons, 1975), chapter 4.
50 Richard Nathan, The Plot That Failed: Nixon and the Administrative Presidency (New
York: John Wiley and Sons, 1975), chapter 4.
51 “Cabinet Councils of Government: Effectively Running the Federal Machine,” Government
Executive, Jan. 1983, pp. 20-30.
52 “Two Former Staffers Discuss Bush Cabinet,” Miller Center Report, vol. 13, spring 1997,
53 The staff support of such councils, and their relationship to White House units such as the
Office of Policy Development,has never been institutionalized or viewed as satisfactory.
chief of staff, John Podesta, the chairing of “executive” Cabinet sessions which have
been called more frequently, although the number of meetings held in 1999 and 2000
has yet to be disclosed.
Within the White House, three primary sub-Cabinet councils—the National
Security Council, the Domestic Policy Council, and the National Economic Policy
Council—dominate the process for establishing administration policy. What makes
these sub-Cabinet councils different is that the President has ended the practice of
viewing the departmental secretaries as superior in status to White House staff. With
respect to the Domestic Policy Council, it is officially composed of departmental
secretaries, several independent agency directors, and White House staff officials.
“Unlike the Reagan and Bush administrations,” reports Shirley Anne Warshaw,
“which placed one Cabinet officer in charge of a Cabinet council, the Clinton
approach was to place presidential assistants directly in charge. White House-Cabinet
interaction for policy development was purposely structured to ensure that the White54
House staff controlled the process.” Apparently, it is the belief and practice of
President Clinton to view Cabinet secretaries and top White House officers as equal
in status and members of a team.
White House Staff
The more serious contemporary alternative to the Cabinet as a source of political
and policy assistance to the President is the White House staff. Presidents generally
enter office with the view that the White House staff should be tamed in power and
reduced in numbers.55 They often issue a statement suggesting that the department
secretaries will be viewed as superior to White House staff. Thus, President Carter
laid down the law early in his administration: “There will never be an instance while
I am in office where the members of the White House staff dominate or act in a
superior position to the members of the Cabinet.”56 This pledge was soon broken.
While Presidents have always had assistance of one sort or another, complaints
throughout the 19th century were that it was insufficient.57 As late as 1922, the White
House staff consisted of a secretary to the President, an executive clerk, and
approximately 25 lesser clerks plus some detailees from departments. Herbert Hoover
requested and received from Congress additional formal positions clearly at the
54 Shirley Anne Warshaw, Powersharing: White House-Cabinet Relations in the Modern
Presidency (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 211.
55 Ann Devroy, “Clinton Announces Cut in White House Staff,” Washington Post, Feb. 19,
a term later defined as encompassing the entire Executive Office of the President, by 25
percent. The reduction never reached the projected figure, and where downsizing occurred,
it was principally in the National Drug Control Policy Office. The number of senior staff
positions in the White House proper actually increased.
56 Edward D. Feigenbaum, “Staffing, Organization, and Decision-Making in the Ford and
Carter White Houses,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 10, summer 1980, p. 371.
57 For a discussion of early staff support to the President, see: John Hart, The Presidential
Branch, 2nd ed. (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Press, 1995), chapter 4.
executive assistant level, but the situation remained extremely lean for a President
bent upon an activist managerial role.
In 1936, in preparation for his second term, President Franklin Roosevelt
appointed Louis Brownlow to head a three-member committee to study how he might
reorganize the executive branch generally and the White House in particular, to
enhance his managerial capacity as President. The Brownlow committee (President’s
Committee on Administrative Management) submitted its report on January 1, 1937,
and proposed, among other things, that some 100 independent agencies,
administrations, boards and commissions, and corporations be placed within 12
executive departments. Of these departments, two—Public Works and Social
Welfare—would be additions to the Cabinet. The principal thesis of the report was
that the executive branch should be reorganized to create an integrated, hierarchical
structure with the President as an active manager. In short, it became the foremost
contemporary statement favoring departmentalism.58
In terms of legislative accomplishment, relatively little was directly forthcoming
from the Brownlow committee work. The two most important results were the
passage of the Reorganization Act of 1939 (53 Stat. 561) with its provision for the59
legislative veto of presidential initiatives to effectuate reorganizations and the
establishment, by way of Reorganization Plan No. 1 of 1939, (53 Stat. 1423) of the
Executive Office of the President (EOP).60 The EOP initially consisted of five
presidential agencies; the White House Office, the Bureau of the Budget, the National
Resources Planning Board, the Liaison Office for Personnel Management, and the
Office of Government Reports.
In the half-century since that time, a number of units have been added and
removed from the EOP, with the current number standing at approximately 12. The
two key units of the EOP from the perspective of the institutional Cabinet are the
White House Office and the Office of Management and Budget (in 1970 the Bureau
of the Budget was renamed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)). The
White House Office consists of approximately 400 persons, not including the Office
of Administration, Office of Policy Development, National Security Council, and
other units frequently associated in the public mind with the White House.61
The staff of the White House, plus the director of OMB, are competitors to the
several department secretaries. They differ, however, in their authorities, perspectives,
resources, and objectives. Departmental secretaries, as heads of departments, are
58 U.S. President’s Committee on Administrative Management, Report with Special Studies
(Washington: GPO, 1937). Ronald C. Moe, “The Brownlow Report: A Timeless Message,”
The Bureaucrat, vol. 16, fall 1987: 45-48.
59 John D. Millett and Lindsay Rogers, “The Legislative Veto and the Reorganization Act of
60 Harold C. Relyea, ed., The Executive Office of the President: A Historical, Biographical,
and Bibliographical Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997).
61 U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal
Year 1998 (Washington: GPO, 1997), p. A-59.
required by law to perform certain functions. Members of the White House staff are
not generally assigned statutory functions. Cabinet secretaries are subject to
centrifugal forces working to separate secretaries from the appeals of the President.
Staff generally believe that secretaries succumb to these pressures.
From their point of view, White House staffers tend to see department
secretaries as inflexible, politically insensitive, and resistant to interagency cooperation
or cooperation with the White House Office. Department secretaries, for their part,
often view staffers as holding less responsible positions with little to no statutory
basis, and thus tend to resent or resist White House staff directives or initiatives. In
their view, the departments have the experts, the White House the dilettantes. These
conflicting perspectives can be useful or harmful to Presidents, depending upon how
well they harness these institutional forces to achieve their political and managerial
Many Presidents and their staffs have tended to see in the executive branch a
morass of departments, agencies, regulatory commissions, corporations, and other
units too complicated and numerous to fathom fully. The sheer complexity of the
structure and system acts as an invitation to politically motivated aides near the
President to promote reorganization proposals. Many of these proposals, which
frequently involve the creation, merger, or elimination of whole executive
departments, are highly charged and erode collegiality. Other efforts to reorganize
agencies and programs within departments (particularly through the reorganization
plan process, an authority allowed to lapse in 1984) have been characterized as flawed
in concept and implementation.63
If an early enthusiasm for reorganizing departments wanes in a first term, it may
be replaced by a presidential desire to further politicize the departments and agencies
through loyalist political appointees and to centralize critical decisionmaking in the
White House. These twin objectives—politicization and centralization—are often
pursued by Presidents pledged to fulfill the opposite, or at least different, goals.
These two trends away from reliance upon career executives and from decentralized
policymaking in the departments, while subject to noteworthy exceptions, are often
accepted as the norm in the evolving institutionalized presidency.64
62 For a discussion of these contrasting perspectives by one who served both as a White House
Assistant to the President and later as a Cabinet Secretary, see: Joseph A. Califano, Governing
America: An Insider’s Report from the White House and the Cabinet (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1981), chapter 10.
63 U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Government Operations, Reorganization Act
Amendments of 1983. H. Rept. 93-128, 98th Cong., 1st sess., (Washington: GPO, 1984).
Louis Fisher and Ronald C. Moe, “Presidential Reorganization Authority: Is It Worth the
Cost?” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 96, summer 1981: 301-18.
64 Terry M. Moe, “The Politicized Presidency,” in The New Direction in American Policies,
eds. John E. Chubb and Paul E. Peterson (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1985):
Reinventing Government and the Cabinet
President Clinton has followed a complex pattern of relating to his departmental
secretaries and other agency heads. For the most part, Clinton has informally
delegated responsibility for management of the executive branch to Vice President Al
Gore Jr. The Vice President embarked in 1993 on a widely publicized program, under
the heading of National Performance Review (NPR), to “reinvent” the government
to more closely resemble a large corporation in the private sector.65 “Chief Executive
Officers—from the White House to agency heads—,” the Vice President asserted,
“must ensure that everyone understands that power will never flow through the old66
channels again. That’s how GE did it; that’s how we must do it as well.”
The National Performance Review team was created as part of the Vice
President’s office on a non-institutionalized basis intentionally separate from the
Office of Management and Budget and the Cabinet. In 1994, OMB was reorganized
with the “M” side of the agency being integrated into the “B” side and reconstituted
into five Resource Management Offices (RMOs). This reorganization of OMB was
not without its critics, who argued that critical management issues would always be67
subordinated to near-term budget priorities.
Two major consequences affecting the Cabinet as an institution have followed
in the wake of the executive branch reinvention. First, there has been a general shift
away from reliance upon central management agencies, such as the Office of
Personnel Management (OPM), to support and hold executive agencies accountable
to meet governmentwide standards. The thrust of the NPR approach has been to
assign wherever possible management responsibilities to the specific department and
agencies and more directly to “front line” personnel because, in their view, that is
where accountability properly resides.68 Second, there is increasing emphasis on
devolving authority within departments and the assignment of functions to third
parties, generally private contractors.69
65 For a full iteration of Vice President Gore’s objectives in “reinventing” the government,
consult: U.S. Executive Office of the President, National Performance Review, From Red
Tape to Results: Creating a Government That Works Better and Costs Less (Washington:
66 Ibid., p. 68. See also: Vice President Al Gore, National Performance Review, Businesslike
Government: Lessons Learned from America’s Best Companies (Washington: GPO, 1997).
67 Alan Dean, Dwight Ink and Harold Seidman, “OMB’s ‘M’ Fading Away,” Government
Executive, June 26, 1994, pp. 62-64.
68 “Effective, entrepreneurial governments transform their cultures by decentralizing authority.
They empower those who work on the front lines to make more of their own decisions and
solve more of their own problems. National Performance Review, From Red Tape to Results,
69 For a discussion of contemporary third party administration of government programs see:
James W. Fesler and Donald F. Kettl, The Politics of the Administrative Process, 2nd ed.,
(Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, 1996), Chapter 11. U.S. General Accounting
Office, Government Contractors: Are Service Contractors Performing Inherently
“General management laws” is a term of art that refers to those cross-cutting
laws regulating the activities, procedures, and administration of all agencies of
government, except where exempted either as a class of agency or on an agency
specific basis.70 Such laws (e.g., Administrative Procedure Act and Title V personnel
acts) have historically been viewed as crucial to maintaining the integrity of the
executive branch through departmental secretaries to the President and ultimately to
Congress. The NPR view of government management, based as it is on the private
sector corporate model, moves away from the public law, hierarchical basis for
management and, in its place, seeks to reorganize the executive branch into many
essentially autonomous government agencies (e.g., Performance Based Organizations)
competing both internally with other agencies and with non-governmental entities in
the private sector.71
Second, the NPR and much of the current management philosophy addressed to
the governmental sector seeks to decrease the role of the President’s central
management agencies (Office of Management and Budget, Office of Personnel
Management, and General Services Administration), and also that of departmental
secretaries. As devolution of authority within departments to lower levels accelerates
and as departments are disaggregated (e.g., Social Security Administration made
independent of the Department of Health and Human Services; National Nuclear
Security Administration being made “administratively autonomous” of the Department
of Energy), the role of Cabinet secretaries is correspondingly diminished. Possibly of
greatest import to the current administrative management government-wide, however,
is the increasing reliance of departments and agencies upon contracted third parties
for the performance of their statutory mission. Whole programs, and even agencies,
could find themselves being held accountable for program management and
administration, while the actual program resources rest with third parties, often
private sector, for-profit corporations.72
Governmental Functions? GAO/GGD-92-11, (Washington: GAO, 1991).
70 U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, General Management Laws:
A Selected Compendium, ed. Ronald C. Moe, CRS report RL30267 (Washington: July 28,
71 David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, Reinventing Government (Reading, MA: Addison- Wesley
Publishing Co., 1992). Alasdair Roberts, “Performance-Based Organizations: Assessing the
Gore Plan,” Public Administration Review, vol. 57, Nov./Dec. 1997: 465-78.
72 Donald F. Kettl in his book, Sharing Power: Public Governance and Private Markets
(Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1993), describes the growing reliance by the federal
government upon its private partners. “In its eager pursuit of the competition prescription,
government has—for a remarkable variety of reasons—too often surrendered its basic policy-
making power to contractors.” p. 13. Writing in 1990, a Senate report concluded: “DOE
[Department of Energy] relies on private workforce to perform virtually all basic
governmental functions. It relies on contractors in the preparation of most important plans
and policies, the development of budgets and budget documents, and the drafting of reports
to Congress and Congressional testimony.... DOE top management does not have the basic
information it needs to understand the dimensions of its reliance on a contractor workforce.”
The point to recognize is that in recent decades, and especially with the
implementation of the NPR proposals after 1993, the basic functions of departments
and of departmental secretaries have been altered, in some measure strengthening the
department and its secretary, in other cases reducing their authority and leverage over
operations. When the latter is the case, it is not unreasonable to assume that the role
and importance of the Cabinet has undergone a similar diminution.73
Utility of The Cabinet
Most Presidents have complained about the Cabinet as a political institution. It
rarely has met their expectations. Nearly all memoirs written by persons who have
served in the Cabinet are equally or more critical in their appraisals and are skeptical
of its utility to either the President or to the department secretaries. Outsiders writing
of the Cabinet often are cynical concerning its proceedings and contribution to the
management of the executive branch. A few of the outsiders (and an occasional
insider) have proposed reforms for the Cabinet, but these proposals have generally
come to naught.
If there are so many people who find fault with the institutional Cabinet, why has
it survived for two centuries, and why are there no serious proposals to abandon the
Cabinet? The answer appears to be that, notwithstanding the continuing criticism, the
Cabinet has utility to Presidents and to department secretaries in meeting their
respective managerial responsibilities. If the Cabinet is expected to provide the
President with collective, or even individual, policy advice, the expectations are not
likely to be fulfilled. Once the Cabinet is considered as a vehicle for management,
however, its utility becomes both substantial and visible.
There are at least four areas where the utility of the institutional Cabinet is
evident and worth discussing more fully.
1.Political and managerial advice
2.Interdepartmental conflict resolution
U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Governmental Affairs, Subcommittee on Federal
Services, Post Office and Civil Service, Report to the Subcommittee Chairman by Majority
Staff, “The Department of Energy’s Reliance on Private Contractors to Perform the Work of
Government,” in Use of Consultants and Contractors by the Environmental Protection Agencystst
and the Department of Energy, S. Hrg. 554, 101 Cong., 1 sess. (Washington: GPO, 1990),
73 It is interesting to note that, in a comprehensive overview of management reform efforts in
the federal government since 1945, the President’s Cabinet is not discussed. Paul Light, The
Tides of Reform: Making Government Work, 1945-1995 (New Haven, CT: Yale University
Political and Managerial Advice
Generally, presidential leadership is defined in terms of persuading the public and
elected officials to follow the President’s policy preferences; providing initiatives in
international affairs; and being a public symbol for worthwhile national causes. But
another, less visible, aspect of presidential leadership relates to providing political and
managerial leadership for the executive branch. It is in this latter field of leadership
where the Cabinet can play a highly useful role.
Information and analytic judgments can flow in both directions at a Cabinet
meeting.The President can raise the general question, say, of how best might the
federal government encourage greater technology research and development and then
let the Cabinet secretaries exchange ideas before him. In so doing, certain themes
may develop and need further “fleshing out” by selected secretaries. Here, the ideas
are coming from below to the President. Subsequently, the President, considering the
advice given, may assign to a particular secretary responsibility for developing options
for his consideration, and for developing a consensus on what may become the
administration’s policy. Cabinet meetings can facilitate the raising of critical issues
and the resolution of those issues within an executive branch context, Finally, the
Cabinet may serve as the basis for building a political consensus sufficiently strong to
put these ideas, such as vocational education and retraining, into practice.
Cabinet meetings can help a President to “get a feel” for the management
problems afflicting the federal government. Presidents, generally familiar and
experienced in legislative politics, feel comfortable with the process of getting a law
passed by Congress. But laws are not self-executing; they must be implemented and
implementation is a managerial function.
Recent Presidents have been discouraged by both advisers and scholars from
investing time and political capital in executive branch management.74 Their argument
is that Presidents should concentrate on political leadership, not managerial75
leadership, the latter being described by some as a mere “clerkship” function. This
attitude has arguably been costly both to Presidents and to departmental secretaries.
Today, some government offices and even departments appear to be “hollow,”76 that
is, they have become dependent (usually because of personnel ceilings) upon a77
contract workforce. This “government by proxy” poses a major management
challenge to departmental secretaries as they must manage more through negotiations
than through command.
74 Arnold, Making the Managerial Presidency, 2nd ed., chapter 11. Ronald C. Moe, “At Risk:
The President’s Role as Chief Manager,” in James P. Pfiffner, ed., The Managerialnd
Presidency, 2 ed. (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1999): 265-84.
75 Richard E. Neustadt, Presidential Power: the Politics of Leadership (New York: John Wiley
and Sons, 1960), pp. 5-8.
76 Mark Goldstein, America’s Hollow Government (Homewood, IL: Business One Irwin,
77 Donald F. Kettl, Government By Proxy (Washington: CQ Press, 1988).
It is a proper role for the department secretaries in Cabinet meetings to bring to
the President’s attention managerial problems associated with the current
organizational and personnel structures. Policy decisions should be informed by
resource availability and public law considerations, both subjects on which department
secretaries collectively and individually are conversant. The Cabinet, therefore, has
utility in that it provides a forum where most of the executive branch is represented,
and where general managerial concerns can be raised and discussed. But the
management value of the Cabinet is once again solely at the discretion of the
Interdepartmental Conflict Resolution
Our government is a government managed by laws.78 For the most part,
Congress passes a law establishing a program or directing the writing of regulations,
and assigns this responsibility to a departmental secretary. While this system has the
virtue of creating clear lines of authority and accountability, it also has limitations.
Different laws may assign different department secretaries responsibility for
administering what are in effect similar programs, but are intended to achieve
The Secretary of Health and Human Services, for instance, through the
Administrator of the Food and Drug Administration, is charged with protecting the
health of the citizenry-at-large. There is a specific provision in law forbidding the use
of any food additive that is deemed to induce cancer in man or animal, but what
standards shall apply to this prohibition? If any trace of such an additive is sufficient
to ban the product, what impact will this have on farmers/growers who consider
traceable doses of this additive to be essential to their productivity and international
competitiveness? Clearly, there is the potential in this situation for conflict between
the secretaries of Health and Human Services and of Agriculture.
The Cabinet is itself not a useful forum for resolving this conflict, but the fact
that two equal-ranked secretaries can meet on neutral territory, possibly with
presidential prodding, makes resolution of this problem more likely. Cabinet meetings
permit secretaries to meet each other socially, a situation which is conducive to
subsequent phone calls and personal meetings. On most issues, two or more
secretaries can agree to have their principal deputies meet to work out agreements.
Interdepartmental conflicts are inevitable and even healthy. They are likely to
increase simply because the government is concerned with more issues than in the
past, and the issues are becoming more complex. Oftentimes, problems between
bureaus within different departments resist resolution until they can be considered at
the secretarial level. While the Cabinet setting does not guarantee resolution of these
conflicts, it is reasonable to assume that it facilitates agreements between parties.
78 Ronald C. Moe, “The Importance of Public Law: New and Old Paradigms of Government
Management,” in Phillip J. Cooper and Chester A. Newland, eds., Handbook of Public Law
and Administration (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997): 41-57.
When Presidents meet with their Cabinet, they are able to express their views to
the chief executive officers of most, but a decreasing percentage, of the executive
branch. The independent agencies (e.g., National Aeronautics and Space
Administration; National Archives and Records Administration), the independent
regulatory commissions (e.g., Federal Communications Commission), most
government corporations (e.g., Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Tennessee
Valley Authority, Postal Service), and quasi-governmental bodies (e.g., Federal
Reserve System and Smithsonian Institution) are not represented when the Cabinet
meets. Similarly, a decreasing percentage of the budget remains “discretionary” and
represented by the Cabinet officers. These caveats aside, the Cabinet still provides the
President an audience where most of his responsibilities as the nation’s chief executive
The Cabinet collectively, in small groups, and individually, is the institution
where a President, if so inclined, can give managerial direction in the broadest sense
to the executive establishment. When the Cabinet meets there is a visible reminder
that each person present is part of a “team” and that this team is supposed to be
moving in the same direction, the President’s direction. Presidents differ on how they
use this opportunity for leadership. More often than not, the Cabinet meetings are
used to send hortatory messages or to invoke across-the-board directives. Typical of
the latter is where Presidents instruct all secretaries to submit to the White House staff
prior to the next meeting their recommendations for cutting costs within their
Experience suggests that few secretaries are interested in managing their
departments in any hands-on manner. Many are selected solely for political reasons
and see their role in political terms. In support of this view of their job, secretaries
have substantial political staffs and other political appointees upon whom they rely79
upon for policy advice and administrative loyalty. Departmental management, as
that term is generally understood, usually falls under the purview of the deputy
secretary. Deputy secretaries tend to view their subordinate agencies with
ambivalence. For those departments that are “holding companies” (e.g., Department
of Commerce) for agencies with long-standing missions and independent bases of
support, the secretary and deputy secretary may see their internal managerial role as
more that of a “mediator” between the agencies rather than that of policy initiator.
Arguably, the most useful role of the Cabinet to the President is in the political
realm. As noted, the highest patronage the President has at his disposal are Cabinet
appointments. In return for these appointments, Cabinet members, with some
exceptions, are expected make public appearances in favor of the President’s policies
and programs. They must be prepared to spend time on the “campaign trail.” They
79 Paul C. Light, Thickening Government: Federal Hierarchy and the Diffusion of
Accountability (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1995).
must speak to trade associations and private organizations to build up the President’s
Cabinet members are expected to be useful to the President in his relations to
Congress. Cabinet members are the heads of departments, and the President and
Congress are generally in a conflict over who should supervise what. Even when a
departmental secretary may differ with the President on a policy affecting the
department, the secretary is expected to defend the President publicly. This can place
the secretary in a difficult position, such as in cases when the President is proposing
to move an agency out a department (e.g., the Social Security Administration out of
the Department of Health and Human Services).
Harold Seidman reminds us of the Cabinet officer’s role as far as the President
While the White House may not consider a Cabinet member’s
participation in the development of a legislative proposal essential, the
President will hold him to account for assuring its enactment by the
Congress. So far as the President is concerned, a Cabinet member’s
primary responsibility is to mobilize support both within and outside the
Congress for Presidential measures and to act as a legislative tactician.
Major questions of policy and legislative strategy are reserved, however,
for decision by the White House staff.80
Finally, Presidents expect that secretaries will keep their subordinate political
officers in line. This is not an easy task today because there are so many sub-Cabinet
officers testifying before the myriad of congressional committees and subcommittees
that the voice of the administration can sound cacophonous.
In sum, Presidents, even those most critical of the institutional Cabinet, find ways
in which it can serve their needs, and thus its utility insures its continuance.
“Reforming” The Cabinet
It is evident that the Cabinet has rarely pleased those seeking greater political and
managerial effectiveness for the President. It has also been a disappointment for many
in philosophical terms. The Cabinet has been viewed by some as symbolic of a
fundamental fault in American political theory. In one form or another, the underlying
assumption of critics has been that the United States should change from a
presidential political system to a variant on the parliamentary political system. The
80 Harold Seidman and Robert S. Gilmour, Politics, Position, and Power: From the Positive
to the Regulatory State, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 82.
Cabinet is seen by these “reformers” as a critical element in a successful institutional
and philosophical transformation.81
The young Woodrow Wilson, like so many political and social activists in the
post-Civil War period, despaired of the American government with its “spoils
system,” and looked longingly across the Atlantic to the emerging parliamentary
system in England where “responsible parties” appeared to provide the basis for clear
and effective government. Wilson was particularly incensed at Congress and its
committee structure, which he believed was corrupt and dominated the presidency.
He initially advocated a full-blown parliamentary system.82
In Wilson’s early schema, the Cabinet was to be selected by the President but
only from representatives in Congress. Thus, members of the Cabinet would not only
hold executive department portfolios, they would also sit in Congress and answer
questions regarding their policies and administration.83 Wilson believed that the
dominance of Congress, and particularly its committees, over the President and the
executive branch was a permanent condition, and, therefore a constitutional
amendment was necessary.
Like many reformers, then and now, there was concern that the branches were
“too separate,” that they functioned at cross-purposes and indulged themselves in
corrosive competition. Furthermore, Congress was seen as the captive of local,
parochial interests. What was needed was a Cabinet which served as a bridge
between the branches. As the years passed, and Congress changed, the views of the
young Wilson changed as well.84 He was still opposed to what he called “committee
government” but was not as vocal in his support of drawing Cabinet members from
the Congress. When Wilson assumed executive positions later on, he began to see85
hope for leadership in the presidency.
81 A typical “reform” proposal from those who desire that the American political system more
closely resemble a parliamentary system is provided by Herman Finer in his review of the first
Hoover Commission Report in 1949. “A full cabinet system with collective responsibility is
the crying need of America—of the nation, of the Congress, of the departments, of the civil
service, and of the presidency. Only if responsibility is truly shared among fifteen or twenty
men, only if the will to govern is put into commission, will it be possible to integrate the
Government of the United States, and secure simultaneously that all departments shall be
heard, that all departments shall take notice, that all personnel shall respect their chief, that
facts and advice shall not run about free, equal, and wild.” “The Hoover Commission
Report,” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 64, Sept. 1949, p. 417.
82 Woodrow Wilson, “Cabinet Government in the United States,” The International Review,
vol. 7, Aug. 1879: 146-63.
83 The first of the reformers credited with the idea of having “the principal officers of each of
the Executive Departments ... occupy seats on the floor of the Senate and House of
Representatives” was Senator George H. Pendleton of Civil Service fame. Congressionalthst
Record, 46 Cong., 1 sess. vol. 9, num. 1, March 26, 1879, p. 72.
84 Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1885).
85 Woodrow Wilson, Constitutional Government in the United States (New York: Columbia
The appeal of bridging the chasm believed to exist between the branches by
having the Cabinet sit in Congress (not requiring a constitutional amendment) cut
across the political spectrum.86 Supporters included such diverse personalities as
Henry Stimson, Robert La Follette and William Howard Taft. The latter, in his post-
presidential exegesis, Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers, noted:
I am strongly in favor of a change in our existing system, by which the
importance and influence of Cabinet officers shall be increased. Without any
change in the Constitution, Congress might well provide that heads of departments,
members of the President’s Cabinet, should be given access to the floor of each
House to introduce measures, to advocate their passage, to answer questions, and
to enter into the debate as if they were members, without of course the right to
vote. Without any express constitutional authority, Congress has done this in the
case of delegates from the territories. Why may it not do it with respect to the87
heads of departments?”
In the 1920s, Warren Harding and his Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes,
were ardent supporters of having the Cabinet sit in Congress and answer questions.88
There had been instances in the then-recent past when members of the Cabinet had
appeared individually on the floor and the “reformers” saw this as a salutary sign. The
underlying assumption behind the varied support for this idea was a tremendous faith
in the efficacy of debate to change rational minds for the better, a process leading
ultimately to consensus. Of course, both the liberals and conservatives of the period
were convinced that discussion and debate would ultimately favor their views.
Where were the opponents of the idea of having the Cabinet sit in the Congress?
Given the fact that no action was forthcoming on the various proposals, it is
reasonable to assume that the opponents were in the majority; but the opponents, for
whatever reason, rarely published their views or had access to the major newspapers
or journals. The reformers were never quite able to convince the majority of
Members of Congress, or Presidents since Warren Harding, of the wisdom of their
proposals. Indeed, proposals to put the Cabinet “in” Congress were increasingly89
viewed as either utopian, naive, or simply wrongheaded.
University Press, 1908).
86 For a discussion of the historical proposals and debates to assign Cabinet members some
role in the Congress and, conversely, to permit Members of Congress to also serve in some
executive branch capacity, see: Stephen Horn, The Cabinet and Congress (New York:
Octagon Books, (1960) 1982).
87 William Howard Taft, Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1916), p. 31.
88 For an overview of the “question period” proposal for Cabinet members to appear before
either or both Houses of Congress, consult: U.S. Congress, Congressional Research Service,
A Question Period Before Congress; Proposals to Bring Cabinet Officials Before the
Legislature, by Paul Rundquist, CRS archived report 91-305G (Washington: April 3, 1991).
89 David B. Truman, The Governmental Process: Political Interests and Public Opinion (New
York: A.A. Knopf, 1951), p. 530.
This is not to say, however, that reformers have given up the struggle. In
addition to the lingering appeal of parliamentary government over presidential
government, in recent years the impetus for much reform activity has been the spectre
and practice of “divided government,” a term referring to those periods when the
White House is occupied by one political party and one or both houses of Congress
are dominated by the other.
Today’s reformers still tend to place faith in the related proposals to have
Cabinet members “sit” in Congress or to have Members of Congress simultaneously
hold executive branch offices, but see these proposals as simply one small part of a
major constitutional reorganization of the national political system.90 For the most9192
part, reformers, such as James MacGregor Burns, Lloyd Cutler, and James
Sundquist are generally considered to be “liberal” in their political orientation, and
believe that the natural majority consensus behind their political views is frustrated by
antiquated and anti-majoritarian institutions.93 They generally favor a presidency that
is dominant over Congress, and see the Cabinet as an instrument towards this end.
A second set of reformers also has a long history of offering unrealized
recommendations on how to make the Cabinet more effective for the President. They
want the Cabinet to undergo alteration, but are less comprehensive in their vision.
Their proposals stress modification and changes in emphasis to increase the “policy
advising role” of the Cabinet. Earlier proposals to alter the Cabinet (e.g., Nixon’s
1973 proposal to create three “super counselors” or “super Cabinet members”) have
been discussed in other contexts. Cabinet reorganization proposals tend either to
emphasize altered use of existing departmental secretaries or recommend a rather
different cast of characters to serve in the Cabinet.
90 Committee on the Constitutional System, A Bicentennial Analysis of the American Political
Structure (Washington: Committee on the Constitutional System, 1987). Donald L.
Robinson, To the Best of My Ability: The Presidency and the Constitution (New York:
Contemporary “reformers” lean towards a comprehensive overhaul of the American
political system and do not shy away from proposing many constitutional amendments. James
Sundquist provides a “menu” of constitutional and non-constitutional changes that most
reformers favor. Included in the list of changes proposed would be: (1) laws discouraging
“split-ticket voting;” (2) four-year House terms and eight-year Senate terms; (3) modified
procedures for selecting the President (e.g.., abolish the electoral college); (4) permitting
special elections to reconstitute a “failed” government; (5) removing the prohibition against
dual office-holding; (6) limited item veto; (7) restoration of the legislative veto; (8) making the
war powers statute into a constitutional provision; and (9) approval of treaties by majority
vote of both houses. Constitutional Reform and Effective Government, rev. ed. (Washington:
The Brookings Institution, 1992), pp. 322-24.
91 James MacGregor Burns, The Power to Lead: The Crisis of the American Presidency (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1984).
92 Lloyd N. Cutler, “Some Reflections on Divided Government,” Presidential Studies
Quarterly, vol. 18, Summer 1988: 485-92.
93 James MacGregor Burns, Cobblestone Leadership: Majority Rule, Minority Power
(Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).
A typical proposal is that of Graham Allison in 1980, who called for a
Presidential Executive Cabinet (EXCAB). “Presidents need stronger and more
responsive performance from key Cabinet departments. Strength and responsiveness
are not easy to combine. But making key Cabinet officers the primary substantive
counselors to the President, and insuring steady face-to-face relations between them
and the President, will tend to induce both. The recognized participation of
secretaries in presidential decision-making would also sensitize them to presidential94
perspectives and to interests other than those of their own departments.” The
EXCAB would consist of “key” secretaries, such as State, Defense, Treasury, and
Health and Human Services, plus a rotating mix of other Cabinet officers, agency
heads and White House staff. The point would be that those permanent EXCAB
members would have offices in the White House and develop a permanent staff. In
this way, Allison believes, the President would acquire a collective advisory body with
knowledge and political clout. Critics suggest, on the other hand, that a departmental
secretary physically removed from his or her department will tend to lose whatever
uniqueness of perspective that made the secretary seem valuable in the first place.
Spending substantial time in the White House, it is feared, will transform the
secretaries into adjuncts of the White House staff.
Among the more recent “reform” proposals for the Cabinet is that offered by
three-time Cabinet member, the late Elliot Richardson. Richardson proposed that the
Cabinet be radically reconstituted to include those positions with cross-cutting
responsibilities, rather than operating responsibilities for departments. He suggested
that the Cabinet should consist of the President’s chief of staff, the director of OMB,
the National Security advisor, the U.S. trade representative, plus some advisers on
economic, domestic policy and science. “This inner circle, augmented by the three
department heads whose spheres of responsibility are most inclusive—the secretaries95
of State, Defense, and Treasury—would constitute a well-balanced policy council.”
There is no reason to believe that the reformers will cease in their quest for the
Holy Grail, a Cabinet that wisely advises a receptive President. There is also no
reason to believe that Presidents will suddenly find the Cabinet, however it may be
organized, to be a useful collective source for policy advice.
The President’s Cabinet in the American political context is the source of
considerable debate and frustration. Few are satisfied with the Cabinet as an
institution. Particularly critical are those who have served in the Cabinet. Presidents
seek to find uses for their Cabinet—as a collectivity, in sub-Cabinet groups, and
individually—but generally retreat from this quest as experience overshadows hope.
94 Graham Allison, “The Advantages of a Presidential Executive Cabinet (EXCAB),” in
Vincent Davis, ed., The Post-Imperial Presidency (New York: Praeger, 1980), p. 120.
95 Elliot L. Richardson and James P. Pfiffner, “Our Cabinet System is a Charade,” New York
Times, May 28, 1989, p. E-14.
Rather than succumb to the subtle political agenda of “reformers” with their
penchant for institutional tinkering, defenders argue that the Cabinet should be
appreciated for its flexibility and nuances. They believe that the Cabinet, under the
right conditions, can be a source of political and managerial strength to the President,
even compensating on occasion for presidential weakness. Under other
circumstances, however, it can become a political negative as when Presidents are
forced to fire some departmental secretary or find the person a face-saving job. The
critical point is, however, that while the Cabinet may be useful to the President, the
Cabinet itself never governs. The President remains the critical center of the executive
Informed persons may debate endlessly respecting the characteristics of a “best”
Cabinet and staff system for supporting the President in his decisionmaking capacity.
Should Presidents, for instance, appoint a chief of staff to run the White House staff
or should they rely on several co-equal assistants to manage their office staff and
resources? The truth is that there is no single or accepted theoretical model to which
Presidents can repair. Structure and systems are ultimately no substitute for coherent
ideas and presentations and for access to the President. Certain secretaries, as well
as certain staff aides, will always be “more equal than others.” It is an unavoidable
responsibility for Presidents to determine their own personal needs and managerial
style and to shape their office, and their Cabinet, accordingly.
A final comment that may help to explain the ambiguous and controversial nature
of the Cabinet. The President of the United States is both the head of state and the
head of government—two responsibilities almost invariably split between two persons
in a parliamentary system. If the President were only the head of government, and if
governments could fall without affecting the incumbency of the head of state, the
Cabinet might be assigned and fill more collective responsibility. Presidents cannot,
however, share their power officially or they place at risk their prestige and authority
as chief of state, the symbol of national sovereignty. Thus, proposals to modify,
strengthen, or collectivize the Cabinet that neglect to take into consideration the
inherent dual nature of the presidency are bound to be deficient.
The experience of recent Presidents illustrates both the potential and limitations
of the institutional Cabinet. As a collective body, the Cabinet is but one of the
institutional resources available to the President for advice and administrative
leadership of the executive establishment. The range of attitudes toward the Cabinet
evidenced by recent Presidents suggests that the life of the institutional Cabinet shall
continue to be uneven and unpredictable. However, few institutions in the world have
a longer uninterrupted history than the American President’s Cabinet, which should
suggest to the inquiring observer that there must be some intrinsic and deep-seated
value to the Cabinet, and that in its very adaptability and unthreatening nature to
succeeding Presidents lies its strength.