A sharp division has emerged within Ronald Reagan's high command over whether his new administration should be run by a select, four-or-five person "super-Cabinet" -- and just how "super" any such elite inner circle should be.
Reagan's White House counselor, Edwin Meese III, and his nominee for secretary of defense, Caspar W. Weinberger, are strong advocates of the super-Cabinet proposal. Weinberger was the prime architect of the plan months ago, and Meese's new job was created primarily to allow him to serve as coordinator of this rarefied form of Cabinet government.
Reagan's White House chief of staff, James A. Baker III, is said by highly placed sources to have expressed strong private doubts about the super-Cabinet plan. And other critics think it will cause major problems for Reagan by alienating members of Congress, other members of the Cabinet and a variety of interest groups.
Under the proposal being discussed by the president-elect and his advisers, a super-Cabinet would oversee the actions of the entire Cabinet and would serve as the highest policy formulating body of the executive branch. The super-Cabinet would include the secretaries of state, defense and treasury, the attorney general, and perhaps another Cabinet-level official designated by Reagan. They would discuss, as a group, the entire range of major policy proposals, foreign and domestic, whether within the jurisdictions of their departments or not.
Each of these super-Cabinet officials would have an office and staff in the Old Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House. They would function, in theory, as the most senior level of the White House staff, with Meese as coordinator. The proposal is similar to a short-lived plan put into effect by President Nixon at the outset of his second term in 1973 and scrapped four months later as his White House began to wallow in and be swallowed by the Watergate scandal.
Last spring, according to an informed Reagan official, Weinberger proposed to Reagan a modestly revamped form of the concept. Weinberger, who as Nixon's secretary of health, education and welfare had been a member of that super-Cabinet, subsequently wrote memos outlining the proposal, sending copies to Reagan. He also succeeded in winning support from influential members of Reagan's kitchen cabinet, the group of multimillionaires that has served as Reagan's unofficial advisory panel.
Reagan is committed to trying to run the executive branch through a Cabinet form of government, a promise that has been made and abandoned by many incoming administrations. Reagan contends he can make it work, and the question before him is whether he should superimpose a formal super-Cabinet layer upon the Cabinet.
"It would be a major change in the sense that it will be a new use of the Cabinet as a true decision-making body," Weinberger said in an interview. "The idea is fairly straightforward. A group, an inner group, would meet with the president regularly to review policy matters from an agenda of prepared proposals with background sheets attached . . . Some kind of consensus would form, or the governor [Reagan] would give us an idea of the approach he wanted taken."
This inner group -- the super-Cabinet -- would then arrange for the policy to be put into effect within the executive branch.Meetings of the super-Cabinet would not replace meetings of the full Cabinet, which would be held less frequently but would still be policy-making sessions.
Asked if, as defense secretary, he could take hours out of a day to discuss housing starts and high interest rates at a time when Soviet troops are massed on Poland's border and Iran is fighting Iraq, Weinberger replied. "Certainly. You're going to just have to make time."
His own plan, he said, is to use his deputy secretary as his "alter ego" in the running of the Defense Department when he is occupied at the White House with broader policies of government.
"The idea of this inner group of Cabinet members having their offices in the Executive Office Building is to try to ensure that this group would be considered as part of the White House staff," Weinberger said.
But one well-placed critic of the super-Cabinet proposal within the Reagan inner circle said: "I don't think it's going to happen. You can't demote the rest of the Cabinet by promoting state and defense and treasury and the attorney general. And you can't [anger] . . . the various urban interests and social interests and agriculture interests and labor interests by telling them that the Cabinet secretary of their department is not truly in charge of that area."
He added: "Weinberger has a special view of this by now. Just tap Cap Weinberger for HHS [health and human services] or some other nonsuper-Cabinet post and then let him make his speech about the need for a super-Cabinet that would be between him and the president."
Reagan's chief of staff, Baker, who is said to be the leading in-house critic of the super-Cabinet proposal, did not return telephone calls late last week from a reporter who explained that he wanted to discuss the super-Cabinet proposal.
The split between Baker and Meese over the proposal does not indicate a rupture in the working or personal relations between these two top titular officials of the Reagan White House, according to informed sources. It is just a difference of opinion over how the Reagan administration can best be structured, they said.
The super-Cabinet concept has both advocates and critics among those who have served Republican presidents in the past and who are now loyal Reagan supporters though outside his immediate circle.
George Shultz, former Nixon secretary of the treasury, is an advocate like Weinberger, he was a member of that short-lived super-Cabinet of 1973, and he is now vice chairman of Bechtel Corp., where Weinberger has been working as general counsel and vice president. In an interview, Shultz called the super-Cabinet "an essential idea."
"You have to have some way below the president to cull out ideas and share ideas. The White House machinery and the OMB [Office of Management and Budget] machinery just gets overloaded completely," he said.
Rep. Richard Cheney (R-Wyo.) who was White House chief of staff under President Ford, says he is skeptical that Reagan can make Cabinet government work, and especially skeptical that a super-Cabinet approach is the right way. "It's the effort to try to institutionalize it that is kind of risky," Cheney said in an interview.
"I suppose for example that it could create some confusion with Congress. Part of the problem is that when Congress holds oversight hearings, you want to make sure you are talking to the [Cabinet member] . . . who is actually making policy. And the same goes for constituent groups.
"I wish them well and I hope it works out," Cheney said. "But I start out as a skeptic."
Weinberger believes that decision-making in the executive branch must become more of a "collegial" undertaking, with Cabinet members becoming less concerned with protecting their own turn and defending their own agency's constituent interest groups, and more interested in implementing administration policy.
This problem has plagued most modern presidents. Carter White House officials chafed frequently, for example, at what they felt was Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano's reluctance to scale back his costly health insurance proposals. And Weinberger recalls dealings in the Nixon years with Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz.
"Butz would say, 'You fellas may think you're dealing with inflation, but I came up here to increase commodity prices -- and by God, I'm going to do that.' And he did."
Weinberger maintains that he is not concerned that nonsuper-Cabinet members will feel diminished in authority or statue. "They all have large departments to run, after all," Weinberger says.
But Weinberger's longtime colleague in government and business, Shultz, voiced a caution.
Shultz, reflecting upon his own experience in Nixon's super-Cabinet, where he was in charge of all things economic, conceded that major efforts would have to be made by Reagan super-Cabinet officials to assure that their remaining Cabinet colleagues do not feel that their authority and power have been usurped.
In his own case under Nixon, he contended, he did not really act as a buffer between the president and the secretaries of commerce and labor and others who had economic matters to bring to the president's attention.
"Nobody really had to go through me to get something to the president," he said. But he added: "Whenever anyone wanted to see the president, I was the guy who could arrange it . . . People brought things through our group because that was the best way to do it to get it done."
Some of the nonsuper-Cabinet officers in the Nixon years did not see the arrangement in such rosy terms. One critic was the late Rogers C. B. Morton, who as secretary of the interior had to coordinate through super-Cabinet member Butz.
"We were creating another layer of government that wasn't needed," Morton said on the day Nixon reluctantly scrapped the plan, in the aftermath of the resignations of his top aides, Watergate criminals H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Morton added: "You have to search pretty hard to find a real reason for the reorganization plan."