Picking a Cabinet is never easy Even low-level agencies can give a president fits

December 01, 1996|By Robert A. Rankin

WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton begins restaffing half his Cabinet, he must take care even when choosing who will run the most obscure departments, such as Energy or Transportation.

While low-profile Cabinet posts may appear to be fillable by interchangeable faceless functionaries, experience teaches that each Cabinet pick is important. Poor choices undermine presidencies. Good ones extend the president's reach throughout government and society.

Clinton is expected to start announcing his Cabinet picks in early December. He has openings at the departments of State, Defense, Transportation, Commerce, Labor, Energy and Housing and Urban Development, as well as at various agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration.

"I think it's enormously important," said Martin Anderson, who organized Ronald Reagan's initial Cabinet selection in 1980. "Unless he puts people into those places who are competent, within a short time they will create policy messes that he'll spend all his time cleaning up."

Like any executive, a good Cabinet secretary must be able to manage a big bureaucracy - but experts say that's only the start. He or she must be both a leader and a loyal follower simultaneously, and for many executives, that's not so easy.

"These people must understand that the president got elected, the Cabinet secretary did not. These people are part of the president's team. That's a difficult role for a CEO to accept sometimes," said one former White House manager who asked not to be identified. "They see themselves as the head of the department, but the truth is they are guiding that department at the president's direction."

Sometimes willful Cabinet members forget that. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, for example, repeatedly has floated his own ideas without clearing them first through the White House.

Earlier this year, for example, Reich publicly pushed to give new tax breaks to businesses that invest in training their employees - a proposal opposed as unworkable by Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, who has primary responsibility for tax policy, and by Laura D'Andrea Tyson, whose National Economic Council is supposed to clear all such proposals before they go public. Reich's public free-lancing prompted internal in-fighting and made the administration appear disorganized. Jack Kemp was known as a similarly loose cannon when he was George Bush's HUD secretary.

Cabinet members sometimes evolve into mavericks as they become captives of the bureaucracies they were appointed to manage. Federal departments are staffed almost entirely by career civil-service workers, not presidential appointees, and they often pursue their own ideas no matter who lives in the White House.

For example, Jimmy Carter's Transportation secretary, Brock Adams, spoke more for his department's interests than his president's when he pushed publicly for a higher gasoline tax; Carter's secretary of Health and Human Services, Joseph A. Califano, did the same by calling publicly to curb smoking in public despite the political risk that stand posed in 1980.

"Hamilton Jordan [Carter's chief of staff] came down hard on him and said, 'We are running for re-election,'" recalled Shirley Anne Warshaw, a political scientist who specializes in Cabinet studies at Gettysburg College. The key qualities of a good Cabinet secretary, she said, are loyalty to the president and determination to push his policies through the bureaucracies, rather than the other way around.

Andrew Card, who served as both Transportation secretary and deputy White House chief of staff under George Bush, said Cabinet posts pose tricky management challenges.

"It is so easy for the bureaucracy to control the process, but strong leadership at the top understands that and allows the bureaucracy under them to work, but not to dominate," said Card, who now heads the American Automobile Manufacturers Association. "You don't want a Cabinet member to see it as their job to defend the agency. You want them to see it as their job to make the agency work well."

Reagan's first White House team did that best, Warshaw said. Domestic policy adviser Martin Anderson set up small councils of Cabinet secretaries who shared overlapping responsibilities and convened them regularly at the White House. Each council was led by an executive secretary from Anderson's staff.

"The most important part of those meetings were the first five or 10 minutes before the meeting started, and the 10 or 15 minutes after it ended," Anderson said. Why? "Because they all talked to White House staff and to each other and exchanged views" and thus were imbued with a sense of teamwork behind Reagan's initiatives.

"Plus, the Cabinet members loved the idea of once or twice a week having to announce to their staff, 'Well, I have to go over to the White House now'," Anderson added.

Cabinet officials do not answer only to the White House, of course; Congress poses another unique set of management challenges.

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