Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Is the NEC a Good Idea?

Bruce Bartlett had a couple of posts up today about the speculation that Larry Summers might not be long for the administration.  I have no idea whether Joshua Green is right that Summers will soon be gone, but I'm more interested in Bartlett's comments about the structure of the White House.  He's not a fan of the National Economic Counsel:
I continue to believe that the NEC is an organization without a clear reason for existence. It was created by Bill Clinton to be the economic counterpart to the NSC. But the comparison is invalid. The NSC exists because there is inherent conflict in the nature of the State Department and Defense Department that requires continuous oversight. Also, the NSC's issues tend to be very time sensitive and often involve classified material. But there are no inherent institutional conflicts among the economic agencies, their problems are seldom time sensitive, and even less seldom based on classified information. When I worked at Treasury and had access to some of the material from its intelligence office I found that what I read in the Financial Times was much better quality and more up to date.
I don't agree.  The NSC isn't just there to deal with conflict; it's purpose is to help the president coordinate action, not just involving two departments but also the intelligence community and various other departments and agencies that have responsibilities in the broad foreign affairs/national security realm.  Similarly, there are quite a few cabinet departments and independent agencies with governing responsibility for some portion of economic activity.  Bartlett talks about Treasury, which obviously has an important role, but there's also Commerce, Labor, the US Trade Representative, and independent agencies including the SEC and FDIC, and then smaller but still important pieces of policy under a variety of other departments and agencies, everything from the Agriculture Department to the SBA.    There doesn't have to be true conflict between them to make coordination difficult.  And I'm not convinced that Bartlett is correct about whether some of these agencies may well have inherent conflicts, anyway.

While I think that every president should find the working style and staff structure best for him or her, on the whole as best as I can tell the NEC worked very well for Clinton, and is working at least reasonably well for Obama so far (my impression is that the NEC was much less successful under Bush, who retained it but perhaps did not really use it).  It is simply a very, very, difficult job to get the entire government of the United States on the same page when it comes to any complex policy carried out government-wide.  There's simply no way for a president to be assured that once he sets a policy, everyone who needs to act will in fact act.  Presidential commitment to a policy -- "energy in the Executive" -- certainly helps, but that same Executive also needs ot coordinate foreign policy, and the rest of domestic policy, while also dealing with Congress, foreign governments, electoral politics, and who knows what else.  Only the White House can coordinate, but the president himself is too busy to do so.  Of the various ways that presidents have dealt with this since Truman, the NEC model seems to me to make lots of sense, and in practice it does not seem to have revealed any unexpected flaws under the two presidents who actively made use of it.

The danger, presumably, is that the NEC (and more probably the NEC Director) will become an institutional rival to the executive branch officials charged with carrying out policy, just as National Security Advisers have, at times, been bureaucratic rivals to the Secretaries of Defense or State.  However, those rivalries are not as great a source of trouble as they once were, perhaps because presidents have learned from previous mistakes (although it could just be a run of good luck).  Mostly, however, my guess is that someone in the White House is going to help the president coordinate economic policy, and it makes plenty of sense to have the NEC structure and a policy specialist (such as Rubin, Sperling, or Summers) doing it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

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

Who links to my website?