Thursday, July 30, 2009

Institution building

The back-and-forth between Mark Schmitt and Matt Yglesias this morning strikes me as interesting, but not quite stated clearly.

Schmitt's theme is that
Obama's apparent belief that existing institutions can do what they have so far failed to do -- and his resistance to creating new ones -- is emerging as an odd, surprising theme of his presidency.
Yglesias agrees, but while Schmitt more or less approves of Obama's pattern, Matt thinks it's troubling: "It seems to me that presidents’ most lasting achievements are often structural/institutional in nature."

Let's take this apart a bit. The examples provided in the two pieces include the September 11 Commission, the Reagan-era Social Security commission, the base-closing commissions, FDR's "alphabet soup" of new agencies, Bush's Department of Homeland Security, and Reagan's policy change of indexing tax brackets for inflation.

What can we say of these? Well, first, several of them were Congressional, not presidential initiatives: that certainly was the case for the September 11 Commission and the Department of Homeland Security. Some -- the base-closing and Social Security commissions -- were ad hoc solutions by politicians who wanted to duck responsibility for decisions they wanted to take but didn't want the blame for. The last one (indexing) is a policy, not an institutional, reform.

So none of these really is a potential model for presidential institution building. That leaves Roosevelt's new agencies, although we could also include Truman's institution building within the White House (e.g. the National Security Council), and of course many lesser examples of new agencies or Presidential Branch reorganizations down the line.

And, here, I think what we could say is that Obama is acting prudently. Shifting around the organization chart is rarely a good way to get new things done; failures of, say, the Bush Justice Department are less an indication that Justice is a hopelessly compromised department than they are indications that any agency can go awry when the top of the hierarchy is out to lunch or misguided.

It's true that new policies often come with new agencies, but it seems to me a good instinct to use what's there when possible.
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