Truly Locked in the Cabinet

Shortly after the Senate confirmed John Snow's nomination as Treasury secretary at the end of January 2003, Snow phoned me. He wanted to thank me for the guidance I had indirectly given him for how to survive a nomination hearing in my erstwhile memoir, Locked in the Cabinet. “Don't defend yourself. Don't lecture. Don't take the bait,” I had written. If a senator asks for your view on a controversial issue, refrain from expounding. Instead say, “I look forward to working with you on that, senator.”

Since then, Snow has continued to refrain from expressing his views on controversial issues. He may have looked forward to working with senators on significant pieces of legislation, but there's no evidence to date he has done so. I can't remember a Treasury secretary who's been less visible. His name rarely comes up when the White House announces major economic policies. He seems not to be in the loop. It's now rumored that he is on his way out. By the time you read this he may already be gone.

Snow is not alone in his anonymity. Quick: Name a single cabinet officer other than Condoleezza Rice or Donald Rumsfeld. Of all the cabinets I have known, the Bush administration's is by far the quietest. What do they do all day? My successor at the Labor Department, Elaine Chao, is a nice person with a sunny disposition. I met her at the start of her tenure. Since then I've lost sight of her and heard almost nothing about the Labor Department. Samuel Bodman is Energy secretary. The administration talks a great deal about energy policy, but I don't believe I've seen anything of Abraham. Michael Leavitt is Health and Human Services secretary. The White House touts the Medicare drug benefit as a signal achievement, but how often have we seen or heard from Leavitt on this? Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has gone underground.

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It is true that in recent decades presidential cabinets have been subordinated to turbocharged White House staffs. As Labor secretary, I was told with some regularity that “the White House” wanted me to do this or that -- give a speech in Cleveland, meet with a foreign dignitary, soothe ruffled feathers at a California military base about to close, and so on. Eventually I learned that “the White House” was a 30-something hot shot with a desk in the Old Executive Office Building.

Yet the Clinton cabinet was not known for its weak personalities. Bob Rubin, as Treasury secretary, would not have allowed himself to be nearly as far out of the loop as is John Snow. Donna Shalala wouldn't have accepted the stand-in role now played by Michael Leavitt. Attorney General Janet Reno was no shy violet. I was called many things, but never quiet.

Why is this crowd so invisible? Because they've been cowed by a White House that has imposed extraordinary discipline. All policy pronouncements must flow through Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. Everyone else is out of the loop because there is no other loop. The result is the kind of loopiness we've seen again and again, such as the Medicare drug benefit's “doughnut hole” that hits seniors after they receive the first $2,250 in drug benefits, or Bush's silly band-aid of a one-year extension of relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax. Both the Health and Human Services and the Treasury departments have extraordinary talent. Their top-level civil servants understand the nuances of Medicare and the tax code, respectively, far better than the shills at The Heritage Foundation. But as long as the cabinet departments are kept out of the loop, their expertise is useless.

Bush could have pushed his cabinet secretaries to distinguish themselves. He could have unleashed the knowledge and creativity of his cabinet departments, even in the service of his conservative agenda. He could have used John Snow to be a forceful and effective spokesman for the administration on economic policy. That Bush, Rove, and Cheney chose instead to impose lockstep discipline and gag orders has not only diminished the role of the cabinet but also, in the end, diminished the role of the President.

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