Inner circle grows bloated, some say


June 26, 1993|By Jeff Leeds | Jeff Leeds,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- When presidents are faced with difficult national problems, their first course of action is often to look around for some extra chairs.

Yes, chairs. Because their next course of action often is creating a Cabinet-level department to deal with the problem -- or at least look as if it's trying to -- and that means pulling up another chair to the ever expanding Cabinet table.

"Whenever there's a problem, people look to the president and say, 'What are you going to do?' Often, he can't do very much, but there's an expectation that the president will take action. So he creates a Cabinet department," said Bradley H. Patterson, who served as Cabinet secretary in the Dwight Eisenhower administration.

As a result, the president's "inner circle" has grown so large over the years that the whole group has met only three times since President Clinton took office five months ago.

Cabinet bloat has created an unwieldy body that becomes more sluggish and more ineffective in decision-making as it balloons, Cabinet scholars say.

The phenomenon has been under way for decades: World War II begat the Defense Department; the oil embargo begat the Energy Department; riots and urban violence led to the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And now Mr. Clinton wants to elevate protection of the environment to a Cabinet job because the environment has become an increasingly hot issue.

When the federal government was created in 1789, the president had only a few close advisers -- those from the Departments of War, State and Treasury. This small group, called a Cabinet, formed a unified core for the executive branch. As a unit, the Cabinet forged national policy and helped the president make major decisions. And members of the Cabinet are at the top of the pecking order -- after the vice president and several other elected officials -- should anything happen to the president. Typically, one Cabinet member is absent from major events, such as the State of the Union address, in case a catastrophe eliminated the chain of succession.

Since then, presidents have added 11 departments to the list. And the Cabinet, traditionally thought of as the secretaries of each department, now includes the budget director, the drug czar and others.

Mr. Clinton and his predecessors have also allowed advisers who are not of Cabinet rank, such as the leader of the National Economic Council, to attend meetings.

"They don't sit at the table, though," said a White House aide.

Why not?

"Well, the table is but so big."

A bill languishing in Congress right now would officially make the Environmental Protection Agency the Department of the Environment, although EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner already sits at the Cabinet table. If Congress passes the measure, as expected, the Department of the Environment will be the third department created since 1980. (President Jim

my Carter added the Education Department in 1980, and President George Bush raised the Department of Veterans Affairs to the Cabinet in 1989.)

But there are doubts about whether the country gains anything when the president creates a new Cabinet-level agency or raises an existing agency administrator to Cabinet rank.

In an address to a congressional committee earlier this year, Ms. Browner, who sits at the Cabinet table under invitation from the White House, said Mr. Clinton "agrees that we should validate its [the environmental agency's] presence as a statutory matter, regardless of who sits in the White House Oval Office."

Of course, the new department would not necessarily receive a bigger budget and receives no guarantee of additional access to Mr. Clinton. In fact, say the scholars, very little changes when an agency is raised to Cabinet level.

"When Veterans Affairs became a department, all they had to do was change the stationery and the sign on the building," said Mark Peterson, a professor of government at Harvard.

What are the consequences of increasing the number of Cabinet members so quickly?

"The growth in size has decreased its effectiveness," said Mr. Patterson.

In the late 1970s, oil-producing countries in the Middle East imposed an oil embargo, plunging the United States into an energy crisis. The administration sought to squelch public outcry over huge gas

lines, and poof -- the Energy Department was born.

Other Cabinet departments appear to be rewards to certain constituencies for strong support on Election Day.

"When Carter created the Education Department, that was pure political payoff to the NEA," Mr. Patterson said, referring to a major teachers union called the National Education Association.

In the Clinton administration, the counsel of the Cabinet is eclipsed by the White House staff.

White House staff members preside over meetings of "Cabinet councils" -- groups of Cabinet officials from related agencies -- to discuss policy, although the president has led such meetings in past administrations.

The secretary of the Cabinet, traditionally ranked equally with the chief of staff from each department, has been demoted in the Clinton White House to "deputy assistant to the president."

Christine Varney, Mr. Clinton's secretary of the Cabinet, calls the chiefs of staff from all of the departments every morning and sends Mr. Clinton a lengthy weekly memo about the goings-on in each department.

She described her daily conference calls as "an information exchange" but said they do not take the place of Cabinet meetings because no policy decisions are made during the calls.

If the scholars are right, the Cabinet -- once a vital tool in running the executive branch and the country -- may already be obsolete.

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