The Newest Branch of Government

a t the halfway point of President Bush's first year in the Oval Office, followers of Washington's think-tank punditry may understandably be a bit confused. The consensus at a recent gathering of political observers was that Bush deserves high marks for his bold pursuit of a broad policy agenda in his first months in office. Many of those present praised the organization of his White House and predicted that he would score significant legislative victories by mid-summer.

But many of these same observers have been wringing their hands in despair over the institutional impediments that have slowed the staffing of Bush's administration. "If history is any guide, it will be nine or 10 months before the new President is firmly in control of the government . . . . Only then can the real work of the administration fully begin," declares the introductory article of a special report on the state of the presidential appointments process published in the spring issue of the Brookings Review.

So what's going on here? Is Bush off to an impressive and commanding start, or is he a helpless chief executive presiding over a government beyond his control? Is he receiving first-rate advice, or, as the Brookings Institution article suggests, is he hampered by an "increasing reluctance" on the part of talented civic and corporate leaders to serve in government?

If the new administration is short on people or competence, it certainly doesn't show in the headlines. Bush delivered his budget on time-along with a sweeping tax reduction package. The administration has presented Congress with detailed legislative proposals in the areas of education, energy and a "patients' bill of rights." The administration has also launched major efforts to redefine defense priorities and study the reform of social security.

But it is equally true that the task of filling the thousands of political posts at Cabinet departments, independent agencies and advisory boards is proceeding at a snail's pace, although not necessarily for the lack of willing applicants. The bipartisan Presidential Appointee Initiative reported that, after four months in office, Bush had been able to fill only 55 of 491 top administration jobs requiring Senate confirmation-or about 11 percent.

Perhaps the best explanation for Bush's ability to score early successes with only a tiny fraction of political loyalists in place is offered by political scientist Nelson W. Polsby of the University of California at Berkeley, who argues that the decades since World War II have seen the rise of a new branch of government: "the presidential branch."

The importance of the presidential branch, according to Polsby, is due not so much to any special role in executive branch management as it is to the opposite-its "separation from the executive branch." It is the presidential branch, he writes, "that sits across the table from the executive branch at budgetary hearings, and that imperfectly attempts to coordinate both the executive and legislative branches on its own behalf."

The growth of the Executive Office of the President, which now includes the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Domestic Policy Council and the National Economic Council "is the big news of the post-war era-indeed of the last half century in American government, though it took time for the presidential branch to grow into its post-war potential," Polsby says.

With a huge assist from Vice President Dick Cheney, a former chief of staff to President Gerald Ford and Secretary of Defense under Bush's father, the President has deftly assumed command of the presidential branch by appointing a small, but tightly knit, team of top White House aides, Cabinet secretaries and Cabinet deputies-the key players on the various White House policy councils. Not surprisingly, nearly all of the core appointees are former colleagues of Cheney's at the Pentagon or the Ford White House.

To further consolidate its power, of course, the Bush administration is eager to place its appointees in assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary slots throughout the Cabinet agencies. As James P. Pfiffner, a George Mason University professor of government and public policy, contends, "the government's ability to carry out its primary functions depends crucially on capable civil servants, whose effectiveness is intimately tied to the quality of the leadership of the executive branch, that is, presidential appointments."

Conversely, it is only through the politically appointed chain of command that the wisdom, experience and insights of career servants can be conveyed to the decision-makers who sit in the White House councils. But for an administration that enters office with a ready-made agenda, the first priority is take firm control of the presidential branch, so as to let the rest of the executive branch know who is the boss. The flaws of the presidential appointments process have not prevented Bush and Cheney from clearly conveying that message.


Dick Kirschten is a contributing editor for National Journal. Contact him at dkirschten@govexec.com.
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