What’s the Cabinet got to do with it?

Al Kamen
Columnist July 18, 2013

The Senate’s confirmation Thursday of Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez as secretary of labor and Gina McCarthy as head of the Environmental Protection Agency brings the White House a bit closer to filling the Cabinet.

But the announced departures in a couple of months of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Small Business Administration chief Karen Mills will mean continued delay in filling that body.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

It’s critically important, of course, to have Senate-confirmed appointees in these jobs, but the role of the Cabinet itself is much-diminished from Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Team of Rivals” weighing in on the Civil War.

“Think of the president as the head of Sears,” one astute observer noted, and the Cabinet members as heads of the various divisions: Kmart, Lands’ End, Kenmore (“Think of it as Treasury — it makes money”), the Kardashian Kollection and so on.

There’s not much need for them to meet with one another or the CEO — unless things are amiss.

As John F. Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen has written, Kennedy thought Cabinet meetings were a waste of time. “No decisions of importance were made at Kennedy’s Cabinet meetings,” he recalled, “and few subjects of importance . . . were ever seriously discussed.”

In more recent times, according to data compiled by the incomparable Mark Knoller of CBS, Bill Clinton held 24 meetings in his eight years, including the Monica Lewinsky apology meeting.

Occasionally, “you might call one because you haven’t had one in a long time,” a former Clinton aide said, but the gatherings were useful to have “coordinated messaging” and team-building, since members “rarely see each other” otherwise, he added.

A former George W. Bush White House aide noted that there are “rarely significant substantive conversations on the issues” — those occur in “smaller subset groups” on foreign policy or the economy and such — and include senior White House staff.

But Cabinet meetings — Bush held 49, by Knoller’s count — are important, the aide said, to get across “the president’s perspective.” And then there are meetings “in the immediate aftermath of a crisis,” such as 9/11, which are critical to “convey a unity of purpose . . . and continuity of government.”

Obama has had some 21 Cabinet meetings so far, running around 90 minutes or so. These also are held to coordinate messaging, to talk about the State of the Union address, to review budgetary matters and so on.

But they also can focus on major events, such as the death of Osama bin Laden or the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or efforts to boost the economy, a former Obama aide said.

Obama also can go off on other riffs — an analysis of the reelection results, or a reminder after the General Services Administration’s excessive conference spending for everyone to tighten up on such costs.

And before the budget is officially released, the Cabinet members “have a chance to compare notes and to find out everyone” got shortchanged, the former Bush aide joked, “not just them.”

The moving parts

The Senate confirmations of Thomas Perez and Gina McCarthy were part of a deal reached this week to avert a change in the Senate’s filibuster rule.

Perez will be the first Cabinet member of Dominican heritage — both parents were born in that republic — to be named to a Cabinet job. Most prior Latinos in those posts have been of Mexican heritage.

His appointment means some movement in the front office at Labor, with Ana Ma — chief of staff to Perez’s predecessor, Hilda Solis — likely to be replaced by Matthew Colangelo, now deputy assistant attorney general in Perez’s office.

In other action, the Senate Judiciary Committee, voted 18 to 0 to send the nomination of James Comey as FBI director to the full Senate for its consideration. Comey, who was deputy attorney general in the Bush administration, is expected to be confirmed with little difficulty.

As part of the filibuster deal, the Senate has also confirmed Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Fred Hochberg as head of the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

Business small and large

We knew that Karen Mills, the head of the Small Business Administration, was leaving the agency — she’d said as much, announcing in February that she was outta there, though she’d stay on until her successor was named. But now she’s confirmed that she’s leaving in August for posts at the Harvard Business School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, our colleague J.D. Harrison reports.

What that means about who will take the reins of the agency isn’t clear. Could mean that the White House has a replacement on the horizon, or it could be that Mills just decided to duck out in time for the academic year, successor or no.

Also of note: Before the announcement this week of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s departure, the SBA had been the only open Cabinet-level job without a nominee, and there’d been hope in many quarters that the president would settle on a candidate who would add some diversity to the mix.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop
. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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