Cabinet moves to consolidate control

In his choice of Rice as secretary of State and Gonzales as attorney general, President Bush prizes loyalty over change.

The rapid turnover in President Bush's cabinet may further centralize decisionmaking power in an administration already notable for the extent of White House control.

Second-term presidents, largely freed from the pressure to balance geography and political constituencies in their cabinet construction, often staff some of these open posts with proven loyalists. That way they can feel more comfortable in cabinet meetings - while rewarding those close to them with a bump up in authority and prestige.

This may make executive branch management more efficient and harmonious. It can also homogenize the advice a president receives. "It tightens the noose around policy decisions," says G. Calvin Mackenzie, a Colby College professor of government and expert in presidential appointments.

The turnover count in the Bush cabinet, at time of writing, was six. In the most notable move, Condoleezza Rice, current national security adviser and one of the president's most trusted aides, is set to replace Colin Powell as secretary of State, pending Senate confirmation.

Current White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, who Bush, as a governor, appointed to the Texas Supreme Court, is up to replace the sometimes-independent-minded John Ashcroft at Justice. There are also vacancy signs at the Departments of Education, Agriculture, Energy, and Commerce.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appears set to stay, at least for now. But in Washington, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson are widely thought to be next in line to leave. The White House may just be biding its time before announcing further changes, in order to avoid the appearance of a stampede toward the exits.

Given that presidents have been constitutionally limited to two terms only relatively recently, historically speaking, it's difficult to say with precision what normal cabinet turnover is for a reelected chief executive. But Bush's cabinet was unusually stable throughout his first term, experts note. That's especially true in light of the fact that the administration is Republican. GOP administrations tend to have more turnover, says Prof. Mackenzie.

"Republicans don't like serving in government as much as Democrats. They tend to leave and go back to the private sector," he says.

In this context, the current cabinet shuffle may reflect pent-up demand. A change of eight to 10 seats would be comparable to historical examples, according to political scientists.

"It looks to me like turnover will be similar to other terms," says James Pfiffner, a professor of government at George Mason University in Virginia.

At the very least, it appears Bush won't follow the dubious example of Richard Nixon. Almost paranoid about what he perceived as a lack of loyalty among his cabinet and subcabinet appointees, he demanded they all submit letters of resignation following his reelection. He kept only five cabinet holdovers, and enforced loyalty through such moves as having his confidant Henry Kissinger serve as both national security adviser and secretary of State.

Nixon may have been an extreme example, but experience shows that a first-term chief executive looks at cabinet staffing in a very different manner than one facing the beginning of a second term.

First cabinets reflect the face a new administration wants to present to the nation. Ethnic and geographic balance is important, as well as payback. John Ashcroft, at the time of his appointment, was widely seen as someone who would be amenable to the social conservatives who have been among Bush's most enthusiastic supporters. Colin Powell, a celebrity in his own right, was a pick likely designed to bring the new team policy gravitas.

Four years later the calculations are different. The appointment of Mr. Gonzales may well excite Hispanics, who supported Bush and the GOP in 2004 to an unprecedented degree. But it also means that the White House is unlikely to be surprised by Justice Department pronouncements about the arrest of suspected terrorists, as it sometimes was during the Ashcroft era.

Ms. Rice will be the first African- American woman to serve in the nation's highest diplomatic post. But she also has detailed knowledge of Bush's thinking on foreign policy matters, given that she spends many weekends at Camp David with the president and his family. She's less likely than Mr. Powell to clash with other key figures - such as Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney - on key matters of war and diplomacy.

In general, the importance of the cabinet as a forum of advice and font of power has been declining in recent decades. In this respect, it's important to distinguish between the inner cabinet - State, Defense, Treasury, and perhaps a few others - and the outer cabinet of less important departments. Agriculture is a bedrock US industry, to be sure, but its presence in the inner circle of US power is something of an anachronism, note experts.

Decisionmaking in the US government has become more and more centralized in the White House as a matter of necessity, given the speed and complexity of decisions in the modern world. The idea of so-called cabinet government - in which all secretaries weigh in on all matters of importance - is impractical, concluded experts at a Brookings Institution seminar on the subject in 2000.

Cabinet departments today are generally relegated to the implementation of policy, not its development, noted Harvard professor emeritus Richard Neustadt at the time. Presidents should "cushion cabinet members against the shock of discovering that they are not going to be the president's chief policy advisers," he said.

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