Taking in his time is a good plan

Posted: Dec 04, 2000 12:00 AM
Now that President-elect George W. Bush has started formal transition planning, the question of who will get what job in the cabinet is going to occupy most of his attention. Although Bush is going to be under enormous pressure to name all of his cabinet well before Jan. 20, it is more important that he choose the right people than that he fill every slot by that date. Certainly, he needs to have secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury in place as soon as possible. But the nation will not suffer much if he takes a few extra days to pick secretaries for departments such as Veterans Affairs or Transportation. The cabinet-picking process is one that is fraught with land mines. No president has the luxury of just picking who he would really like to have in his cabinet, or even picking the best possible person for the job. Other factors inevitably must be considered. Bill Clinton was obsessed with picking a cabinet that "looks like America." This was taken to mean an overarching concern for diversity in terms of race, sex and ethnic origin. That inevitably meant that competence took a back seat. It is, unfortunately, the case that ability and experience in all areas of public affairs are not distributed equally among the population. So, if a president decides he simply must have a black or Hispanic or woman in a particular cabinet post, there just may not be very many people from which to choose. The same is true, of course, for any other factor that a president places above sheer competence. Obviously, presidents are not intentionally going to pick cabinet members who do not share his political philosophy, and generally speaking, they aren't going to choose members of the opposite party. Inevitably, that his going to limit his choices, forcing him to reject people who, on a purely objective basis, might be the best person for a job. Presidents are also limited to appointing only those people who wish to be appointed to something. In recent years, this has become an important constraint, as low pay, ethics rules and an excessively complicated confirmation process have caused many potentially excellent public servants to say, "No, thanks." Almost everyone involved knows this situation must be improved, but in the meantime, Bush must live with the broken system we have now, which will certainly cause some people he would very much like in his cabinet to take themselves out of consideration. Although it tends to be downplayed, regional considerations play an important role in the cabinet selection process. Bush obviously couldn't appoint only people from Texas, for example. Nor could he appoint only people from the South or West. Clearly, he is going to have to have people from all parts of the country in his cabinet. Again, this necessarily limits his choices. Political reality also dictates that certain interest groups are going to have disproportionate influence on the selection of some key positions. Farmers, for example, are likely going to demand that the Secretary of Agriculture be a farmer or be involved in farming in some significant way. And although every state has a significant farming sector, in practice, the traditional farm states in the Midwest have expected the Secretary of Agriculture to come from there. Similarly, as a practical matter, the Secretary of the Interior must come from the West, preferably from a state where the federal government owns most of the land. The people who live in these states, after all, are the squeaky wheels when it comes to federal land policy, since they must live with it. It is much easier for someone who has lived with this situation to relate, and thus subdue any political problems that may arise in this area. The same considerations hold for other cabinet and even sub-cabinet posts as well. Certainly, no president is going to appoint someone as Secretary of Veterans Affairs who is opposed by the American Legion. And it would be a foolish Republican president who appointed someone as head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who is an active supporter of gun control. (For a Democrats, of course, it would be the opposite.) Where Bush has the most flexibility is with the premier cabinet positions, especially State, Treasury, Defense and Justice. It is widely understood that these departments are the most prestigious in government, those where competence is expected to be the dominant factor in an appointment because of the importance of what they do. It also means that those people asked to serve as secretaries are more likely to agree to do so, even if it involves a great deal of personal sacrifice. It is not unprecedented for someone to turn down the job of Secretary of State or Treasury, but it is very rare. The nature of the times is an important factor in the appointment process. During the Cold War, for example, it was particularly important that the best possible people were appointed to State and Defense. In times of economic crisis, the Secretary of the Treasury takes on added importance. But even when the economic and foreign policy situation is relatively benign, as now, presidents must still be careful because crises in these areas can pop up without warning. Finally, a president's agenda will affect his appointments. With Bush making education, Social Security reform and tax cuts his major campaign issues, this necessarily means that he will be more than usually concerned about having the right cabinet secretaries with responsibilities in these areas. No doubt, Bush and his transition chairman Dick Cheney are well aware of these facts. Unfortunately, they have less time than past presidents to do the work that needs to be done in getting the best cabinet possible given the various constraints. In my view, it is better for him to take a bit more time to do it right, even if it invites criticism and prevents all cabinet positions from being filled by Jan. 20. The decisions are too important to be determined by an artificial deadline.