A Cabinet that refuses to be shelved

The longest-serving Cabinet in the 20th century keeps pushing Clinton's agenda.

They may not have Bill Clinton's rhetorical flair or killer political instincts, but like their boss, the president's Cabinet secretaries seem determined to throw off the lame-duck label.

Having survived myriad scandals and investigations, this group of top advisers to the president has, remarkably, become the longest-serving Cabinet in the past century. It has also been one of the most active - a trend that shows little sign of easing up as its tenure draws to a close.

Take Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Last week he suggested that President Clinton decree four more national monuments, protecting 500,000 acres in the West. When he's not setting aside land, he's banning snowmobiling in national parks or redrawing Yosemite Valley.

And that's just on the policy side. As the race for Clinton's successor heats up, his Cabinet is also getting into the political game, stumping for Vice President Al Gore on the campaign trail, drafting policy points, and lobbing grenades at GOP candidate Gov. George W. Bush.

"They certainly have been very active, and one of the most politically active Cabinets I've ever seen," says Al Felzenberg at the Heritage Foundation here.

To some degree, this flurry of activity marks the end of every administration, says C. Boyden Gray, counsel to former President Bush.

But analysts say that, as a reflection of Clinton's style and energy, this Cabinet is far more pumped than previous ones.

"His activism is naturally resulting in activism in his departments. It isn't like Ronald Reagan waiting to go West," says Charles Jones, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution here.

The Cabinet's very longevity reflects a high degree of satisfaction in their relationship with the president, as well as with their jobs, Mr. Jones points out.

In contrast, in the waning months of Lyndon Johnson's administration, the Cabinet was known as "the Alamo," because only the Texans were left.

At the White House, the president has made it clear that he expects his Cabinet, like himself, to be working up until the last day.

They appear to be taking him seriously.

Commerce Secretary William Daley, for example, has essentially had two jobs this spring: running his department and acting as the president's point person on the recent China trade vote. Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo's been busy wiring public housing for the digital age, planning the demolition of Chicago's housing projects, and taking on the nation's gunmakers.

Mr. Cuomo is also closely tied to the Gore campaign, and some whisper that he could be Mr. Gore's running mate, or chief of staff in a Gore White House.

He's not the only member gunning for Gore. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers is one of the vice president's top advisers on economics. Education Secretary Richard Riley, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, Mr. Daley, and Cuomo all stumped for him in the primaries.

Lately, they've also been Gore's Bush attackers. Defense Secretary William Cohen criticized the Texas governor for his arms-control proposals and invited him to a briefing - implying that Bush is ignorant on defense issues.

As far as political activity goes, "this has been a group that's always stepped up to the plate," says Thurgood Marshall Jr., the Cabinet coordinator.

But there's nothing illegal about government officials helping the vice president, as long as they don't use government equipment to do it. Indeed, former Bush counsel Mr. Gray says Gore is simply enjoying one of the perks of incumbency.

As to the policy push, it's of little concern to Gray, though Republicans are upset with Clinton and Mr. Babbitt, accusing them of skirting congressional authority on land set-asides.

"If there's a legitimate reason to do something, there's no reason not to do it just because a critic might say, 'Gee whiz, you're playing politics,' " says Gray.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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