Ronald Reagan is picking his cabinet but the public shouldn't be mistaken about it. There is less here than meets the eye. The effort to make the cabinet a consultative body which hammers out great decisions has never worked very well. Political scientists like Harold J. Laski thought that was the way it ought to be. But he was an Englishman and likened the American cabinet to Parliament. Actually, the Washington cabinet has been losing influence. Nobody in modern times tried harder to achieve "cabinet government" than Jimmy Carter. Yet he came down from Camp David in the summer of 1979 and let about half the cabinet go. The experiment hadn't worked. More and more the White House intimates took over. Mr. Carter named Hamilton Jordan chief of staff; that was that.
How will it be under President Reagan? Maybe his "inner cabinet" idea will meet the problem but he faces the difficulty cited by Brookings political scientist James L. Sundquist: "The decline of the authority of cabinet members has been perhaps the most fundamental of all the forces affecting the power balance in the national government."
In theory the cabinet should be a collectivized, consultative body. In "Why Not the Best?" Mr. Carter urged that cabinet members "appear before joint sessions of Congress to answer written and verbal questions." Walter Mondale as a senator favored it, too. Rep. Henry Reuss (D) of Wisconsin proposed a constitutional amendment to let members of Congress sit in on the cabinet while still legislators.
It hasn't worked that way. Mr. Reagan faces the same problem of fragmentation that is changing all of Washington. "Eisenhower's cabinet is practically inoperative as a forum for discussion, decisions or coordination," wrote Richard Fenno in a Harvard study at the time. The London Economist noted that the American cabinet should not be likened to the British cabinet: It is not "a real collectivity." President Nixon introduced his new cabinet from a hotel ballroom in a television spectacular as men (they were all men) who had an "extra dimension" with a potential for "great leadership." Most didn't last the four years.
The true power structure in Washington resides in the White House not the departments. It is hard to make the public realize this but the theory of cabinet government is one of various myths surrounding Washington which is hard to exorcise. As President-elect, Mr. Carter in 1977 promised that he would institute a "cabinet government" and would hold the White House staff in check so that there would never come a time "when the members of the White House staff dominate, or act in a superior position to the members of our cabinet." It sounds ironic now.
(As a digression, how often veterans in Washington see new, untried administrations sweep into the city, fresh from election victory, with promises to change and improve things: a balanced budget here, an end to bureaucracy there; a pledge to "get on" with Congress, to moderate regulations, to lie down comfortably with their natural adversaries, the press, whose relationship to the government is like that of poachers to shepherds guarding a flock! Maybe it will work this time.)
Members of the cabinet have no political constituency of their own as in London and Ottawa but only ride on the president's coattail. The H. R. Haldemans and the John D. Ehrlichmans are waiting in the wings and see the president daily or hourly. George Washington thought of the cabinet as something different: a body where memebers would act as direct liaison between the executive and Congress. It didn't work out. President Kennedy said in disgust, "I don't know how presidents functioned with them or relied upon them in the past." And at the end of 1972 all but two of the 12 supercabinet nominees that Mr. Nixon had introduced with unprecedented nationwide television fanfare Dec. 11, 1968, as having an "extra dimension" were out; so also were three of the Nixon "second" cabinet replacements.
And Mr. Reagan? Perhaps he can do the trick with his new "inner circle."