NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Bush Tries Cabinet Government, And It May Not Work

January 10, 2001

According to press reports, President-Elect Bush plans to reorganize the White House staff -- and may abolish the National Economic Council (NEC) and downgrade the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). These changes may hinder rather than aid Bush's economic agenda, says Bruce Bartlett.

The biggest problem Bush faces is keeping control of his agenda, which requires a strong White House staff.

  • Cabinet departments have their own constituencies that pressure the secretaries; as time goes by, some secretaries can be expected to wholly give in to such pressure.
  • The career bureaucracy in each department will seek to have the secretary adopt its policies rather than the president's; if they are unsuccessful, the bureaucrats can drag their feet.
  • Lines of responsibility between departments are not very clear, and interdepartmental conflicts will have to be resolved.

Thus, the National Security Council (NSC) brokers the almost continuous struggle between State and Defense and ensures that the president's directives are acted upon. Similarly, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) keeps the domestic departments from giving away the store to their constituent groups.

The USTR is a counterbalance to the special interest demands of businesses pushing for trade restrictions and retaliation -- with the Commerce Department as their advocate.

The National Economic Council has revolved interdepartmental conflicts within the Clinton Administration, as well as coordinating policies and maintaining conformity to the president's priorities.

Conflicts have led previous presidents to create NSC, OMB, USTR and NEC within the White House, through which they could exercise control and have an independent source of information.

Bush may need to strengthen, rather than weaken, the White House staff operation. Bartlett thinks he will soon find that cabinet government won't work.

Source: Bruce Bartlett, senior fellow, National Center for Policy Analysis, January 10, 2001.


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