Tags: Bush's | Cabinet | Bare | Policy?

Is Bush's Cabinet Bare of Policy?

Wednesday, 05 September 2001 12:00 AM

The issue of "who's in charge here?" has bubbled to the surface as administration policy, foreign and domestic, appears at best uncoordinated, at worst in disarray, just as the president and members of Congress are returning to Washington from their traditional summer recess.

The largest newspaper in the nation's capital leapt on the opportunity to puzzle out how policy is arrived at, and then implemented, in the new Republican administration of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Employing a dual-byline article – the journalistic equivalent of a four-hand piano duet – two Post writers summed up their findings Wednesday:

"Bush's highly credentialed Cabinet members are finding themselves in an unaccustomed role: that of subordinates."

The Post article stated that at the outset of the Bush-Cheney administration "it was thought" – apparently by Beltway insiders on whom the Post relies for so much of its information – "that Bush's Cabinet would be unusually powerful."

George W. Bush's Cabinet of 20 members seated around that long table just off the Oval Office boasts veterans of earlier Cabinets and recent wielders of power and influence, such as former governors, former senators, former top-drawer corporate executives and – the star of them all – an immensely popular retired general.

But what happened, according to the Post, is that every last one of those luminaries has been put in the shade, when it comes to making federal policy, by the hired help with far less imposing offices and cubicles in the White House or the Old Executive Office Building across the alley.

Key among those numerous staffers are Karl Rove, acknowledged to be the epicenter of the administration through whom every major decision must be navigated; Karen Hughes, in charge of the president's public image; and Andy Card, chief of staff – all three veterans of the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign.

The Post's writers ticked off, one after another, critical Cabinet-level decisions – crafted, negotiated and set in stone by White House staff – that had been:

The Post found that among those categories of White House staff dominance over Cabinet officers were decisions controlling administration positions on a number of critical aspects of foreign policy, the president's tax cut, his education bill, embryonic stem-cell research, patients' privacy rights, prescription drugs, energy policy, environmental policy and Navy practice-bombing on Vieques.

Policy-making has blown up in such well-recognized faces as those belonging to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, among others.

It didn't take many of those incidents of embarrassment for Cabinet officers to get the picture. The Post quoted Bush Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, who had served also as former President Bill Clinton's commerce secretary, as saying:

"I know that I'm going to be checking with [the White House chief of staff] or somebody before I go off on a toot."

However, checking with the White House doesn't always do it, as discovered by former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, now head of Bush's Environmental Protection Agency.

Before going off to Italy to participate in an international environmental conference in Trieste, she said, she checked with White House aides to be sure she was on-message if she repeated a Bush campaign position that the new president would consider carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

She received approval and spoke accordingly, only to have the White House disavow the very position it had signed off on.

A sadder but wiser EPA administrator told the Post: "I've been very cognizant that I'm not the final decision-maker. The president – he is the one who was elected."

When asked how often the president seeks her advice, she said that "mostly we talk about the dog" – a Scottish terrier she gave him.

As the Post article observed, "On most of the big issues, Cabinet members have discovered they have less clout than lesser-known White House aides."

Some of this is expected in the first part of any president's administration. It's certainly not a phenomenon that's appeared only upon the advent of the Bush-Cheney administration.

For the past five decades, the Post noted, there has been a steady shift of power from Cabinet officers to White House staff, with the latter making policy and the former carrying it out.

Bradley H. Patterson Jr., who was a White House aide in three previous GOP administrations, was reported as saying:

"Power to develop policy, implement policy and publicly defend policy has been sucked away from the Cabinet and centered more in the White House."

There's no getting away from the reality that the president is the focal point of executive power in the federal government, right where the Constitution intended.

The American people hold a president accountable for whatever policies an administration adopts, and how those fare in implementation. It is unthinkable that a president would turn loose a table full of Cabinet officials to strike out on their own.

What is at issue here – actually, what is still a murky question in the new Bush-Cheney administration – is not who has final authority and responsibility, but to what degree and in what manner the president is running the store.

If it is not the Cabinet that is in charge – and it's abundantly clear that it's not – then who is?

According to the Post, those in charge are three White House political employees who have earned Bush's confidence – Karl Rove, Karen Hughes and Andy Card.

Do they, acting on behalf of the president, consult adequately and in advance with the men and women appointed by the president to serve on his Cabinet?

Or do they take upon themselves the role of Cabinet officers, bypassing or overriding them?

That is, are they fulfilling their roles the way the president intends?

What worries some Bush supporters, and delights his opponents, is a growing sense that the president may not be as in charge as he should be, that he has tossed off to his underlings some of the powers of the presidency that cannot safely be discharged by anyone other than the president of the United States.

A power partial-vacuum at the top is an invitation to all those down the ladder to "go into business for themselves." When that occurs, an administration's policy positions come across as confused, contradictory and incompetent.

No doubt very much aware of those dangers, the Bush White House staff have responded by applying greater control over the one place they have found they can achieve greater control – the policy-making powers of the Cabinet.

What's still unclear with the Bush-Cheney administration is just how consistent and cohesive are the policy actions taken by various White House staffers and to what extent that reflects the vision and ability of this president.

Discovering the Cabinet isn't in charge of itself is illuminating, but doesn't answer the larger questions: What actually are the administration policies? And who really is in charge?

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The issue of who's in charge here? has bubbled to the surface as administration policy, foreign and domestic, appears at best uncoordinated, at worst in disarray, just as the president and members of Congress are returning to Washington from their traditional summer...
Wednesday, 05 September 2001 12:00 AM
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