SBA’s elevation to Cabinet-level is a symbolic move, experts say

The Small Business Administration has been on and off the Cabinet-meeting guest list for nearly two decades.

President Obama's announcement Friday that he was "elevating the Small Business Administration to a Cabinet-level agency" was a largely symbolic gesture, government scholars say.

"The president has the ability to designate his Cabinet and the SBA will be now part of his Cabinet," Federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients reiterated during the White House press briefing, after Obama's remarks.

There is a distinction to be made, however, between the president inviting the head of an agency to his Cabinet, as Obama will do with SBA Administrator Karen Mills, and elevating the entire agency to "Cabinet-level status," according to Paul Light, Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at New York University.

Light described Cabinet-level status as "a formal designation that only Congress can make by giving the individual and the agency a particular level in the executive pay structure." He explained that Mills' future attendance at Cabinet meetings is purely symbolic and will in no way affect her pay grade unless Congress passes additional legislation.

"He's basically saying, 'I'm going to call this person a BFF . . . and I'm going to invite this person to our clubhouse for our quarterly Cabinet meetings,' " Light said, comparing the process to the ceremonial act of knighthood.

Don Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, also sees the act as mostly symbolic.

"Whether an agency is Cabinet rank or not, in terms of getting the job done, doesn't really matter a whole lot," Kettl said. "It has much more to do with political symbolism."

SBA has been on and off the presidential guest list for nearly two decades. President Clinton first extended an invitation to the agency head to join his Cabinet in 1994, when, according to Light, he also misused the legislative term "elevate." President Bush rescinded the Cabinet invitation after he took office.

In 1988, Congress elevated the Veteran Affairs Department to Cabinet-level status. At the time, President George H.W. Bush remarked, "There is only one place for the veterans of America: in the Cabinet room, at the table with the president of the United States of America."

VA's promotion may have been a mixed blessing: "They got the name change, they got the accoutrements of Cabinet status, the limousine," Light said. But the department couldn't get additional employees or funding for new signs, thanks to provisions in the elevation legislation that prohibited such expenditures.

Light said in the grand scheme of things, federal agencies are "probably better off" not receiving Cabinet-level status. "That table's not very important anymore -- we don't have Cabinet government as presidents once imagined," he said.

SBA's seat at the table is likely temporary. The president's full reorganization plan, which must be approved by Congress, would roll SBA and five other trade-related entities into one, still-unnamed agency.