Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Do Cabinet Secretaries Matter?

I'm tempted to agree with Ezra Klein about the appointments process for administration posts, but I think ultimately he's not right.

Specifically, Klein is puzzled why Obama didn't use appointments (such as Secretary of Agriculture and Homeland Security) for electoral advantage. I agree with him and Matt Yglesias that Obama would be better off in the Senate were Vilsack and Napolitano currently running for the Senate against McCain and Grassley, not only because it might have made those Senators more willing to compromise (a possible outcome) but also because, well, they might have won. In Napolitano's case, Obama also gave Arizona a Republican governor, which doesn't matter to most of us, but does to those of us (like my parents) who get to live in the Grand Canyon State.

Obama, of course, has made some appointments that might have been motivated by those sorts of concerns, most notably the aborted selection of Judd Gregg (and wouldn't the math look a lot better for Obama had that one worked out for him!).

But overall, Klein is I think correct about Obama's pattern. As I said, I'm tempted to agree -- most of us who are political junkies tend to be very aware of things like the Arizona U.S. Senate election and it's consequences.

However, what we don't tend to pay attention to are the internal politics of the executive branch. And that's where it matters, in at least two ways.

First, it really does help the administration to have competent political appointees, as a quick look back at the Bush administration will remind everyone. So far, the administration has been largely scandal-free. That may be because cabinet secretaries and other top political appointees are good at the substance of their jobs, and it also may be because many of them have proven political skills.

At least as important, however, is that Democratic presidents actually want the executive branch departments and agencies to, you know, do stuff. Govern. And so it helps, maybe a lot, to have political appointees with excellent, proven, governing skills. Doesn't hurt to have high-profile people who might have a bit more clout when they take on the bureaucracy.

The first, scandal, we don't notice unless it goes bad; the second, governing, mostly gets ignored by the press, and so we tend not to notice them.

We do notice elections (especially Senate elections), and we do notice lawmaking. It's not always clear, however, that those visible portions of the policy-making process are the most important ones.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?