How to make the presidency work

It is now a tiresome tradition for a new president to promise that he will rely heavily on his Cabinet, or at least on its individual members, and reduce the size of his White House or Executive Office staff. But things always seem to turn out differently in spite of the sage advice given by a succession of official studies beginning with the Brownlow Committee report, which led to the creation of the Executive Office in 1939, and going on through the two Hoover Commissions and others.

Now we have another major study of the Executive Office, the first to be made by a panel set up under private auspices. It recommends that the president move systematically toward relying on the heads of executive departments for policy advice as well as for administrative directions. It proposes accordingly that the staff in the Executive Office be forbidden to intervene in the main line of executive responsibility, or to take control of actual decisions.

"A Presidency for the 1980s," as the report is entitled, is the unanimous product of a 26-member panel set up by the National Academy of Public Administration, a private organization made up mainly of people distinguished for their service as career managers. The panel, however, was not restricted to academy members or career types: it included former members of Congress and of the Cabinet and of the White House staffs, drawn from both parties, and business and academic leaders with a wide range of experience. Perhaps because of this variety of interests, and perhaps because of the private status of the panel, it was more free than its predecessors to define the purpose of presidential management in terms or broader values than bureaucratic efficiency, and then to criticize freely not only the way in which the presidency was organized but also its relationships with the Congress.

The study was initiated, with the endorsement of President Carter and former President Ford, before the primaries began and was completed before the election , so as to be ready for consideration by the winner.

It makes 16 specific recommendations regarding organization and administrative processes, many of which follow in the tradition of earlier reorganization studies, although with rather less emphasis on the need for neat organization and rather more awareness of the president's need for some flexibility in the light of his political obligations than is customary among efficiency experts.

Most of the operational units in the White House, the report proposes, should be moved into the appropriate departments, and the White House staff should be reduced substantially in numbers. On the other hand, the report acknowledges that special circumstances may justify special temporary arrangements and emphasizes that the president should have enough staff to be able personally to intervene in specific decisions, with full confidence that he has been given an accurate and objective understanding of the problem by staff with allegiance to him rather than to any special interest.

Thus it is proposed that small staff units, made up of generalists including career officers with some institutional memory, be created to deal with economic , domestic, and international affairs, and a small secretariat to help ensure their constant, informal, and inconspicuous coordination. Even greater emphasis is put on the need to strengthen the Office of Management and Budget, not only to give the president objectives advice and help in controlling the financial commitments of the government -- which go far beyond the budget of appropriated funds -- but also to help improve the organization and management of programs, and the evaluation of their effectiveness.

These proposals are in the best tradition of administrative reform, but the report tries to deal, in sharply different ways, with some of the underlying problems that have hampered such reforms in the past. Reformers used to propose to make government administration as much like private business as possible, and to rely on the president's constitutional status as chief executive to make him the general manager. They assumed that politics in general, and the Congress in particular, were the obstacles to reform. This report, on the contrary, sees the president's political role as primary and acknowledges that every aspect of his administrative role -- the control of organization, money, and personnel -- is dependent on congressional delegation or congressional tolerance.

It argues, indeed, that the main issue is not a contest for power between the executive and the legislative branches but the conflict within each of them between the forces of fragmentation and those of coherence, continuity, and responsibility. A stronger and more disciplined organization within the Congress, capable of tough bargaining with the president, would actually help him discipline and control the executive departments in a responsible manner.

Cabinet members, the first budget director Charles G. Dawes, used to remark, are the natural enemies of the president. This attitude has respectable antecedents. President John Adams complained that collusion between his executive subordinates and leaders in Congress could destroy the president's control, and make the executive authority a "nose of wax" -- and later generations of government managers have found similar obstacles to hard-nosed management.

The Cabinet can hardly be a collectively responsible body on the parliamentary model, but its members, both individually and in group deliberation, have to be able to contribute to the president's judgment on major policies if the integrity of government policy is to be maintained. Only some system to let them deal more intimately with the president, and serve as loyal members of his administration more than spokesmen for special interests, can help him restrain his immediate staff from, in effect, usurping powers that should remain where congressional statutes place them -- in the main line of departmental responsibility. The new report points the way in this direction by emphasizing the need for a secretariat in the White House that can organize the opinions and information of competing departments into a harmonious whole, without itself becoming a public competitor for power.

The whole package of reform, as the panel points out, depends on both the political discipline and restraint of the Congress and the development of an incentive system within the new senior executive ranks of the civil service that will strengthen presidential leadership while at the same time emphasizing the accountability of the executive branch to the Congress and the courts. It may or may not appeal to the new administration, but the real test will be how well its general approach may serve the country over the next several decades as its ideas sink in.

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