Although I have not agreed with President-elect Reagan on many issues, I am encouraged by some ideas emanating from his camp about the use of his Cabinet. The presence in the Reagan circle of people like Caspar Weinberger who know something of the reality of the power of the Cabinet secretary augurs well for the possibility that Reagan will use his Cabinet in the colllegial manner reportedly employed by Presidents Eisenhower and Ford.
As I read the prospective Reagan administration's comments on the relationship between the Cabinet and the president, I sense that the new administration understands that there is, ineluctably, government by departments. Whether that can be made into government by Cabinet secretaries depends upon the commitment of the president and the Cabinet officers to exercise the power they possess.
Despite simplistic assertions that all power resides in the president or, conversely, that no power resides anywhere, specific executive power is lodged by Congress in the secretaries of the several executive departments. For example, among the many authorities of the secretary of housing and urban development, set by statute, are the powers to set the FHA interest rate, to disburse and monitor use of community development block grants, to determine recipients of urban development action grants, to prevent certain housing discrimination, to operate the Government National Mortgage Association, to allocate funds for support of public housing and to regulate the Federal National Mortgage Association.
These and manifold other statutory authorities provide Cabinet secrtaries with enormous power. Whether and how that power is exercised depends on the decision of the secretary about the nature and extent of delegation of the powers to subordinate officials and on the secretary's relationship to those subordinates.
For a variety of reasons, some departments have delegated major authority to subordinate officials with little or no public accountability, and the secretary is frequently discouraged by career officials in efforts to bring accountability to the governing process. Sometimes the delegation of the secretary's authority is so extensive that literally nobody knows who acutally makes an operative decision that in law was originally the secretary's to make. (If there was a revolt on Election Day, it was against this lack of accountability for silly or oppressive government action by faceless government officers, not against abuse of power by high officials.)
When the Reagan people talk of using the Cabinet more effectively, I assume they intend to recover for Cabinet officers the roles envisioned and made possible by Congress. Cabinet officers not only can give advice to the president on general policy, but also can make certain that presidential policy is fully implemented in the operation of department programs.
To ensure the effective exercise of existing Cabinet power, two conditions must exist. First, Cabinet officers must be perceived as having the full support of the president. A White House staff that whispers of presidential lack of confidence in a Cabinet officer weakens the Cabinet officer and also makes the president look weak in retaining the services of a subordinate in whom he lacks confidence.
The second requirement for effective exercise of Cabinet power is full White House cooperation and support in the selection of a Cabinet officer's subordinates. Although it is conventional wisdom that the Carter administration "allowed" Cabinet officers to select their subordinates, and in doing so made a mistake, the reality was different and very effective. For example, all save two of the people selected for HUD top positions were were in the transition team's book of names of potential appointees, and there was full and timely discussion with the White House about proposed presidential appointees. All appointees were fully acceptable to me and to the White House personnel office. The result was an outstanding team that was properly responsive to me as secretary and unquestionably loyal to the president.
If the Cabinet officer is to excrise his or her power, delegation of authority can be trusted only to subordinates who accept the secretary's authority. If the subordinate can go around the secretary to a member of the White House staff (or a senator or congressman), the ability of both the president and the secretary to achieve the president's goals will be undercut because the Cabinet secretary cannot be held accountable for those whom he or she cannot control.
A word is required about the alleged "capture" of Cabinet secretaries by the "departmental constituency." The president and the vice president are elected to serve all the people, and every "constituency" belongs to them. The Cabinet secretary is directly related to the constituency affected by the operations of the secretary's department. The Cabinet secretary should, and usually does, serve as an early warning system and a lightning rod to deflect from the president problems arising in that constituency. A naive White House staff will try to interdict this essential Cabinet role, and a wise staff will use the Cabinet secretary to full advantage to insulate the president from the importunings of that constituency.
Finally, departments in the hands of trusted and trustworthy Cabinet officers can make the president and the White House look very good, if permitted to do so. Neither the domestic policy staff nor the national security staff in the White House has the research and policy development resources of the smallest department. The value of harnessing these resources through the involvement of the Cabinet secretary was understood by Lyndon Johnson, who operated with a domestic policy staff less than one-tenth the size of the present staff.
If President Reagan uses the Cabinet secretaries for advice (which he is not required to follow) and their departments for their enormhous resources, he will have a good chance of implementing his policies.
Power to govern exists; it is real. It remains only for elected and appointed officials to find the legitimate levers of that power. Congress has put many of those levers in the hands of Cabinet officers who have only to seize them and use them to achieve the goals of the administration in which they serve.
If the Cabinet secretaries are required to be seen and to see themselves as essential and powerful parts of the governing process, we may find new respect for both those who govern and for the government itself. Such respect for governors and government is essential if the democratic process is to prevail. Whatever the new administration does to achieve this will have the full support of many people, including me.