April 19, 2012

Quick: Who’s the secretary of commerce? How about the head of the Small Business Administration?

The correct answer to both of those questions should be:

A) I don’t know

B) I don’t care

C) Both A and B

The president’s Cabinet is an anachronism in today’s Washington, where important decisions are made almost entirely by White House officials. Worse, the Cabinet has become a symbol of the federal government’s excess and bureaucracy.

Rick Perry famously proposed eliminating four — oops! — three Cabinet agencies. A better idea is not to eliminate the government functions but to get rid of the figureheads whose power doesn’t come close to their ceremonial status, including places in the presidential line of succession and prime seats at the State of the Union address.

Of the 22 Cabinet-level positions, only four are necessary — the same four George Washington had in his Cabinet: secretary of state, secretary of defense (or war, in Washington’s case), secretary of the Treasury and attorney general.

The Cabinet meeting, once a crucial forum for creating and debating national policy, is now a mere photo-op. The Cabinet meetings that President Obama has every couple of months exist almost entirely to make it look as if actual work is occurring. New York Magazine last year quoted a Democratic source asserting that half a dozen Cabinet members hadn’t had a single phone conversation with Obama in their first two years on the job.

Cabinet officers have become figureheads by design. Because they are appointed with Senate confirmation, they can be hauled before Congress to answer questions. The president, therefore, has a powerful incentive to keep them out of the loop. White House advisers, by contrast, are often protected by executive privilege. These officials, many of them young and unknown, are the ones who hold the real power over the Cabinet members, who exist largely as defenders of budgetary turf.

Let’s clear ’em out. Then you will never again feel a sense of panic when somebody asks: Who’s the secretary of housing and urban development? For the record, it’s Shaun Donovan. But really, you shouldn’t care.

danamilbank@washpost.com

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post op-ed columnist.

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Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000.