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John, Cameron have seats at Obama’s table

Cameron Kerry, left, joined John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry in January for his brother’s confirmation hearing. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Commerce Department General Counsel Cameron Kerry — brother of Secretary of State John Kerry — will become acting secretary of commerce when the outgoing acting secretary, Rebecca Blank, leaves at the end of this month.

This may be the first time — we’re checking — that two brothers served in the Cabinet at the same time. Of course, President John F. Kennedy had brother Robert Kennedy as attorney general, but that’s not quite the same. (And it won’t happen again, because that move sparked a 1967 law, dubbed the “Bobby Kennedy law,” banning relatives of the president from getting such jobs.)

There were the Dulles brothers, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles, but the CIA wasn’t — and isn’t now — a Cabinet post. There were the Bundy brothers in the Kennedy administration, national security adviser McGeorge Bundy and senior State Department official William Bundy, but neither ran a Cabinet agency.

Given the much-anticipated and likely lengthy Senate tussle over the nomination of Penny Pritzker to be commerce secretary, Cam Kerry may be “acting” for quite some time.

So if you have the Kerrys over for dinner, be sure you specify which “Secretary Kerry” you mean on the place cards. (Ditto at Cabinet meetings.)

The No. 2 blues

It’s taken a while, but now all but one of President Obama’s Cabinet members either are on the job or have been nominated for their posts.

Much less attention has been paid to the critical deputy secretaries, the folks who often actually run the operations. And it turns out many of those jobs — about half, in fact — are, or will soon be, vacant.

Just looking at the deputyships at the 15 statutory Cabinet agencies, we’re hearing that the No. 2 folks at Agriculture (Kathleen Merrigan), Commerce (the aforementioned Rebecca Blank), Homeland Security (Jane Holl Lute), Interior (David Hayes), State (Tom Nides), Treasury (Neal Wolin) and Education (Anthony Miller) have left or are expected to leave shortly.

Several others are staying on for a limited time, generally to help a new secretary settle in and find the bathrooms and the nearest exit and such.

There’s talk that the White House has penciled in replacements for at least some of the deputy openings, but so far no nominations have gone to the Senate for confirmation.

So if you’re looking for a fine deputyship, get out your résumé.

Twisted civics

About midway through his new book, “Act of Congress,” our colleague Bob Kaiser recalls German statesman Otto von Bismarck’s observation:

“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”

Kaiser’s deftly written behind-the-scenes account of the making of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill — Congress’s response to the great financial crisis of 2008 — takes us through the congressional grinder on an often cringe-inducing journey.

We see Congress — despite Democratic control of both the Senate and the House — in the era of bitter and endless partisan warfare, barely, just barely, able to react to the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression.

And it was able to do so largely as a result of huge public outrage and the wits and political skills of then-Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who granted Kaiser access to them and their staffs as the bill took shape.

We find many of our lawmakers, if not a strong majority, wrangling over and then voting on a bill they at best vaguely understand. We discover why members of Congress are not often seen carrying stacks of papers — it’s because they get the one-pager from their aides.

And, as Kaiser illustrates, they are wholly dependent on their staffs to carry them through. The power of nameless congressional aides (though Kaiser names the key ones involved in this legislation) is, whether for good or ill, disconcerting.

But the members are Einsteins all when it comes to knowing the politics involved in the bill and in protecting their committee turf and reelection prospects.

The huge amounts of money at stake, naturally, made for massive lobbying on both sides. Kaiser reveals some stunning and crucial deals — including one Frank made to neutralize opposition from small banks — that were made in total secrecy and “never reported anywhere in the news media.”

And so the biggest changes in the rules governing the U.S. financial system in 80 years were enacted, overturning the deregulation philosophy that largely caused the disaster in the first place.

“Isn’t that grounds for hope?” Kaiser asks. “Hope perhaps, but not optimism,” he concludes.

The subtitle of the book is “How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t.”

Mostly it doesn’t. And things have only gotten worse.

With Emily Heil

The blog:
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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

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