commentary

(Washingtonpost.com)

October 5, 2007

Oval Office Overhaul

by Elizabeth D. Brown and John D. Graham

The United States faces complex and interconnected problems, but the executive branch of the U.S. government is organized in silos, with each department or agency assigned to separate issue areas. Key responsibilities in many areas are spread across multiple agencies; for example, at least 12 different agencies administer more than 35 food safety laws.

It is time to rethink the structure of the executive branch. A comprehensive reorganization along the lines suggested by the National Commission on Public Service, led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, could improve the U.S. government's problem-solving capability.

The Volcker Commission's vision would consolidate the bureaucracy into a handful of mega departments, each headed by a highly qualified appointee equivalent in stature to the typical Secretary of State or Defense. The small cabinet would better serve the president and the nation by strengthening the connection between the White House and the agencies, engaging the departments and agencies in the policy process, and facilitating congressional oversight of the president's policy initiatives.

With a smaller cabinet, the president could rely on the secretaries as trusted advisers on the major issues facing the United States. Instead, today under President George W. Bush, the cabinet includes the vice president, the heads of 15 executive branch agencies, and five additional officials with cabinet-level rank.

The current system doesn't work. With the exception of the vice president and White House chief of staff, each cabinet member is focused on a narrow group of issues and manages a bureaucracy that competes for turf and power. The cabinet members gather in ceremonial meetings that serve as media photo ops and as occasions for the president to inform them about decisions already made — and to dispatch them to advocate policies they played little or no role in developing.

How would reorganization work? A simple consolidation plan might start by grouping the major domestic agencies into three broad categories; economy, society and the environment.

There could be one leader of economic policy, covering what we now call the Departments of Commerce, Labor, Agriculture, and Treasury.

Another Cabinet department could oversee social policy, covering the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Housing and Urban Development.

Another leader could direct policy toward natural resources and infrastructure, absorbing the Departments of Interior, Energy, and Transportation, along with the Environmental Protection Agency,

The benefit to the president is real. Today, it is virtually impossible for the president to develop trusted and meaningful relationships with each cabinet member. The result has been to sever the president's key link to the civil service — and alienate career federal employees from the president's policy agenda. The president needs the loyalty and commitment of the bureaucracy to help implement his or her vision.

Over the course of many administrations, the overall balance of power has shifted decisively from cabinet officers to the White House staff. But when the White House designs and implements policy without use of the cabinet, it circumvents open oversight by the Congress and reduces transparency of the political process. Such opaque maneuvering resulted in disasters such as the Watergate scandal under President Richard Nixon and the Iran-Contra scandal under President Ronald Reagan.

In comparison to the White House staff, cabinet officers serve two masters: the president and the Congress. As a result, they are typically accessible to the Congress for public testimony and one-one-one dialogue, thereby making congressional oversight more meaningful.

Consolidation would also create valuable opportunities for sensible coordination under a common mission. Food stamps, now addressed as agricultural policy, should be housed with other aspects of social policy. And the science of climate change, now housed with commerce issues, should be housed with other energy and environmental protection functions.

Reorganizing and streamlining the cabinet should be considered by each of the 2008 presidential candidates in both parties. Once the next president is elected, he or she will have a short window of opportunity to promote such ambitious reform. Without strong presidential support, special interest groups and others would block a reorganization effort in Congress.

In order to make sure reorganization is carried out properly, policy research organizations and universities should study the current structure of the federal government and develop a careful plan for reorganization as well as develop benchmarks to track future progress along important dimensions. Research could begin by assessing the effectiveness of the current mega departments of Defense, State, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security.

In Federalist Paper Number 70, Alexander Hamilton wrote that "energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government." That is why the framers of the U.S. Constitution decided in favor of a unitary and separate presidency rather than a parliamentary form of government. But if the White House operates in a disconnected way from the cabinet departments and agencies, the result is ineffectiveness, dangerous policies — or both.

The Volcker reorganization plan may be attractive to a future president who seeks to share the burden of leading the United States with a small but capable group of leaders rivaling the White House staff in terms of Oval Office access and policy impact.

Congress has much to gain from reorganization as well, because Senate-confirmed cabinet officers — unlike White House staff — have an obligation to explain their policy initiatives to the Congress and the American people.

The Volcker plan may also be attractive to a nation that has grown skeptical of the merits of unchecked presidential power. The solution is not to bind the power of the presidency, but rather to harness it.


Elizabeth D. Brown is a RAND doctoral fellow and John D. Graham is Dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, and a former senior official in the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

This commentary originally appeared on Washingtonpost.com on October 5, 2007.