The Vicious Circle of Cabinet Decay in US Politics

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Keith Humphreys describes how Washington has changed in the era of the supercharged White House staff and the relentless marginalization of cabinet secretaries. Imagine, he says, that the president has just appointed you to a cabinet position:

You come to Washington D.C. wanting to launch what you think is a terrific new initiative and some Jonah Ryan-type staffer who is just learning how to shave says there is no space for your stupid idea in the President’s budget. You are officially obligated to vigorously defend your boss’s budget, but your chief policy advisor, who used to work for Senator Backslap, hints obliquely that he’d be happy to pass along your quiet support for the initiative on Capitol Hill, where it has a good shot of attracting budgetary support despite the President’s opposition.

You know you should resist. But then you think of the look on the face of that smartassed little wanker who is half your goddamn age and how he and the other countless snot-nosed whippersnappers at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are always blaming you in the press when the white house staff screw up, and you say to your policy advisor, “Well (cough) if the Senator really supports my — I mean the — initiative, then (cough), obviously it’s the Congress that writes the budget and if (cough), they choose to go forward I would of course fulfill my responsibilities to (cough) execute their wishes enthusiastically.”

If the White House discovers your treachery, they will say “See, we cannot trust these people. Let’s hire more staff and bring more cabinet functions into the building where we can control them”. This bureaucratic response leads cabinet members to become so impotent and so distrusted that they contribute little to the administration and feel resentful towards it, feeding the cycle further.

I don’t have anything to add to this, really. I just enjoyed reading it and thought I’d pass it along. However, it certainly reinforces my bafflement that anyone in their right mind would accept a cabinet position outside of the Big Four these days. Sure, I guess it will look good in your obituary some day, but other than that, what’s the point?

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