Wednesday, June 27, 2007

2008: Ending the Imperial Presidency

Most of the media attention for the 2008 election focuses on a single job, that of President of the United States. This is understandable, because the presidency is a powerful position, and most of the country is thoroughly fed up with the current occupant of the White House. Even many largely apolitical people are probably impatient with Bush and want to see someone else talking at them on their television sets and being made fun of by the late-night talk shows.

This focus on the presidency is, in fact, a sympton of a huge underlying problem. For decades, there has been an increasing focus on the presidency and a decline of both the power of Congress and the power of the Cabinet. Particularly since 1947, power has shifted away from Cabinet to White House-appointed positions such as the White House Chief of Staff and the National Security Council. This has meant an erosion of Constitutional checks on executive power, and a shift from policy implementation by competent administrators to policy by small coteries of partisans devoted to a charismatic or folksy lelected eader who is the voice of imperial powers that are largely driven by those same unelected advisers. This also tends to marginalize Cabinet-level departments and squander the institutional memory and expertise of thousands of government officials and workers.

This trend has reached its nadir under the current presidency. The Vice President, technically elected but with little popular support, acts internally as the de facto chief of staff, while blocking the independent power of the Cabinet and the oversight powers of the courts and Congress, all in the service of a private agenda. That agenda is opposed by the majority of the people, a majority of Congress, and most of the career officials in various government agencies.

This is a crisis of government that will not be fixed simply by electing a new president, of whatever party or platform. What's needed is a conscious break with the imperial presidency itself, and a strengthening of civil administration through Cabinet departments and the power of Congress.

This is why I can't get excited about the presidential field, if it's seen only as a field of potential imperial presidents, prone to the same abuses of power as the current president, even if they are much more likely to exercise restraint in their abuses. However, if the same field of candidates is viewed as a slate of Cabinet officials who will be delegated real powers over policy by a president who focuses on the big picture, it suddenly looks promising.

Take Joe Biden as a good first example. The guy's largely a tool of special interests such as banks. He's not alone in this, but he's a particularly good example of the type. His ego is enormous and one can only ponder what he would do with the imperial powers of the presidency. On the other hand, Biden has years of experience on the Foreign Relations committee and shows an acute understanding of military issues. He would be an effective Cabinet officer as Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense.

Bill Richardson is another excellent example. He was ambassador to the UN. He has been a broker in negotiations with other countries. He's already got executive experience as Governor and as former Secretary of Energy, though his record in the latter case is weak. But he would make an excellent Secretary of State.

So let's continue this exercise and think through all of the Cabinet offices, in order of precedence:

Secretary of State -- Bill Richardson
Secretary of the Treasury -- Chris Dodd, who is currently Chairman of the Senate Banking committee. Dodd also has committee experience that would make him a good choice for Commerce, Labor, and State.
Secretary of Defense -- Joe Biden
Attorney General -- You want a good legal administrator here, with a record of standing up for the people more than for elected officials. I'd pick Elliot Spitzer.
Secretary of the Interior -- Public lands, Indian and territorial affairs, and wildlife management. This started as a catchall department. To streamline government, all management of public lands, resources, and the environment should be folded into a single department. Because the EPA is granted Cabinet status, I'd merge Interior, EPA, and Agriculture into a single Department of Land and the Environment. This department would balance the protection of the public and public resources against commercial and recreation uses of land, and the combined department could develop an integrated federal land policy that views forests, farms, and environmental concerns in developed areas as part of the same land use system. The Indian and territorial affairs functions might make more sense moved under State.
Secretary -- Al Gore
Secretary of Agriculture -- Al Gore, within the new Department of Land and the Environment.
Secretary of Commerce -- This should be recombined with the Labor Department, so that one agency manages rules that affect businesses and their employees. Secretary -- John Kerry, who currently serves on various commerce-related committees.
Secretary of Labor -- John Kerry, if combined with Commerce. If standalone, Dennis Kucinich or John Edwards.
Secretary of Health and Human Services -- Barack Obama, if he's not VP. He's got the committee experience.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development -- consider rolling this office into HHS, adding the Social Security Administration, and possibly rebranding it as a Department of Social Security.
Secretary of Transportation -- ?
Secretary of Energy -- ?
Secretary of Education -- Dennis Kucinich, if he's not already running Labor. He has committee experience in both labor and education. Consider recombining with HHS.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs -- Obama, if he's not VP or Secretary of HHS. It would make sense to combine this into one agency.
Secretary of Homeland Security -- If possible, this should be abolished and its functions returned to other departments.

Hillary Clinton has experience appropriate for many of these offices. She's on a health, education, and employment committee, the Armed Services committee, and some environmental committees, so she would be a good choice for EPA, Labor, HHS, Education, or even Defense. But really, I think her talents are best suited for the job she's currently seeking, president. So long as her power was checked by strong Cabinet officers and a reenergized Congress, she would be a good choice for a strong leader who nevertheless can oversee a transition away from the imperial presidency. The biggest concern is the danger of a dynastic presidency.

So, within the eight Democratic candidates, seven have experience that would serve them well on the Cabinet. The eighth, Mike Gravel, served on several environmental committees and would be a good choice for EPA or Interior or a combined agency, though my guess is that he doesn't want the job and might not be a great administrator, and would prefer to spend time in retirement after his campaign is complete.

If all of them accepted positions, this would take five Democratic Senators and eliminate their majority, so the results of the 2008 Senate elections are crucial. But leaving aside those political calculations, the central idea is sound. Don't just elect one person and hope that person can change the tone of the executive branch--elect one person who will appoint the others according to expertise, so there's a range of informed opinions channeled through a single competent president who gives each Cabinet official freedom to enact policy and reserves her role for arbitrating disputes and gaining public support for the policies of that Cabinet.

Imagine a general election campaign that lays out a whole shadow cabinet ready to hit the ground running on Inauguration Day, with specific policies controlled by each shadow official, with an overall message coordinated by the presidential candidate consistent with the efforts of each official. The theme could be competence and restoration of a government that works for the country as a whole instead of narrow interests.

Key policies for each department could include:

State: Lead the efforts for peace in the Middle East, starting with an end of the Iraq war and a settlement of related regional issues.
Treasury: Progressive income tax reform by raising the standard deduction and adjusting marginal rates to maintain revenue.
Defense: Rebuild the armed forces after a withdrawal from Iraq, and redeploy to domestic defense and international anti-terrorist efforts.
AG: A restoration of habeas corpus, an end to torture and extraordinary rendition, and the abolition of many parts of the Patriot Act.
EPA: A national carbon tax, offset by tax reductions elsewhere.
Interior: No commercial use of private land at taxpayer expense. Mining and logging, etc. without government subsidy, and within stricter environmental protections.
Agriculture: Phase out price supports that favor agro-corporations and hurt family farms, and use the saved money to buy up land to preserve agricultural uses against suburban sprawl.
Commerce: Work with other departments to encourage energy efficiency, environmental protection, and economic growth.
Labor: Improved enforcement of labor laws and better funding for worker retraining.
HHS: National health care
Social Security Administration: Move to pay-as-you-go by freezing the trust fund to limit the liabilities in the general account, and then use existing revenues to raise benefits. Then index the future payroll tax rate to the number of beneficiaries, while eliminating the income cap, creating and gradually raising an income floor, and shifting the tax rate to upper incomes. This saves Social Security with minimal tax changes and minimal effect on national debt.
HUD: Shift public housing dollars to support creation of low-income housing within private housing developments, favoring mixed-used developments. Work with Labor to create new job opportunities in cities.
Transportation: Invest in national rail network upgrades, including long-range plans for high-speed rail. Eliminate federal road funding, shift to tolls for maintenance and expansion of roads, and shift federal funding into mass transit infrastructure.
Energy: Plan for full energy independence by 2050, using conservation, renewable energy, and nuclear power. Work with EPA carbon tax and transportation and housing investments.
Education: Rework NCLB so that failing schools receive greater investment rather than being closed punitively.
Veterans: Full funding for physical and mental health care; free work retraining; free college education.
Homeland Security: Disband.

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Anonymous Blanche said...

Well written article.

6:28 PM  

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