Cabinets that get wobbly
Washington — One of the things President Carter has tried and given up is cabinet-style government. He is not the first American president to think that he could graft the British collectivized cabinet discussion onto the American system. It sounded good in Georgia. Practically every world government, even the Russian with its Politburo, reaches decisions by an elite group at the top -- or at least that is the way we suppose the Soviets operate. Why not an adaptation of the British cabinet system in Washington, then? The connotation of the word "cabinet" in politics implies collegial decisions.
The trouble is that members of the president's hand-picked cabinet have departments of their own to administer; they do not have independent political constituencies, nor are they normally closely identified with personal groups in Congress. Mr. Carter abandoned so-called "cabinet-style" government in a dramatic gesture. His administration last summer seemed to be falling apart. He was in dire political trouble. The House, as one example, refused, 246-159, even to grant him stand-by power for gasoline rationing in an emergency (a position since changed). He had sunk in the polls below any previous president and was running 2-to-1 behind Senator Kennedy. He returned from the Tokyo summit and retreated to Camp David where it was announced he would speak to the nation, July 5. Then he attracted worldwide attention by postponing the talk to July 5.
What was coming was his "malaise" speech, generally outlining he nation's problems, delivered in a brisker manner than usual and appealing for support. One opinion poll taken immediately afterwards showed his popularity had jumped 9 points. It seemed a success.
But now a curious thing happened. Two days after the speech he dropped half his Cabinet. It was a shakeup umparalleled in the century. It lost a lot of momentum from the earlier speech.And it was the spectacular end of another Carter dream -- government by collective wisdom of a cabinet picked by a chief executive.
Other presidents have tried it. The first Cabinet of the new American Government met for the first time 185 years ago. Said Washington later: "These public meetings with reference to and from different departments are as much, if not more, than I am able to undergo.
Jefferson thought consultation with individual Cabinet members more satisfactory than with the Cabinet as a body. President Jackson didn't call a Cabinet meeting for two years after taking office.
Lincoln made his celebrated comment when he polled his Cabinet and heard them all say "no" -- "The vote has been taken: the yes have it."
Of FDR's Cabinet meetings, wrote Harold Ickes, "The cold fact is that on important matters we are seldom called upon for advice."
Truman thought he had revived the cabinet system. The fact is, though, that he had no Cabinet staff-work; no action assignments were circulated and Secretary of State Dean Acheson hardly felt himself bound by Cabinet opinions that ran counter to his own and the President's.
President Eisenhower brought in his Army staff system and probably used the Cabinet as much as anybody.He specifically differentiated between the British cabinet system of collectivized responsibility and the unitary rule of the American presidency. Ike's Cabinet members met two hours every Friday morning. The meetings worked as a medium of information exchange, a coordination device, a feedback for information, and -- to some small degree -- as a policymaker.
As to other presidents, Richard Nixon, like Messrs. Ford and Carter, used the Cabinet as a forum for discussing issues in an informal and unfocused manner, but basic matters of policy and politics were more apt to be decided privately in the Oval Office. That is the way Mr. Carter continues to operate. His closely knit staff, largely from Georgia, is powerful and has been stiffened with some outsiders.
The system differs with every president. But collectivized cabinet responsibility can't work in a presidential government where executive authority is closely wrapped up in one all-powerful and independently elected man.