Monday, August 9, 2010

NEC and the Presidential Branch

Bruce Bartlett continues to be on the warpath against the National Economic Council.  Perhaps that's too any rate, he's against it.  I wrote something long in defense of the NEC in response to Bartlett a while ago, and I'll pretty much just link back to that now.  Short version: the Presidential Branch (that is, the White House Office and the larger Executive Office of the President) exists to do three main things: to do things that the president would like to do but doesn't have time to do (such as the daily press briefings, or speechwriting, or routine lobbying of Congress); to give the president independent sources of information and expertise, because presidents don't and shouldn't trust the bureaucracies in the executive branch departments to give unbiased information; and to coordinate policy, because few important policies are only devised and implemented by one agency.  The NEC has performed the coordination job for economic policy, broadly speaking, since Bill Clinton invented it.   If it didn't exist, it seems to me that some other structure within the White House would be necessary to do the same thing. 

The main reason  I thought this was worth a separate post, however, is that I need to link to Keith Hennessey's long, but absolutely first-rate, description of the White House, the EOP, and the NEC.  I highly recommend it.  About the only caveat I'd toss in is that I think Hennessey perhaps somewhat understates the ad hoc nature of each individual presidency...a whole lot of the internal structure of the White House can change overnight when a new presidency enters office.  But that aside, it's an extremely useful piece of description.

As long as I'm writing, I might as well also say that I think Matt Yglesias is wrong to say that the Council of Economic Advisers isn't needed because "After all, if the president wants to get a briefing on some subject from an academic macroeconomist I’m pretty sure that could be arranged at any time."  Well, sure, in theory -- but in reality, presidents beginning with Truman have found that it's useful to have those people close at hand, because if they're not then odds are that, in practice, the president will be stuck with the economic analysis provided by Treasury or some other department or agency.  And presidents, it turns out, can't trust that analysis, because it's apt to be biased by whatever the bureaucratic culture and incentives might be of the relevant agency.  Of course, presidents have to be careful; Barack Obama's CEA is apt to be biased in favor of Barack Obama's way of looking at the world.  That's why honest brokers are needed for the coordination jobs such as National Security Advisor and the Director of the National Economic Council.  It's very possible that Larry Summers may have the wrong skills and sensibilities for that latter job, although it's always a bit tricky reading the tea leaves on these sorts of things (I think the logic and analysis in the Ezra Klein post I linked to there is excellent, and I don't doubt his reporting...but you never know why people are saying what they're saying).  Regardless, the jobs of the NEC Director and of the CEA are just very different.

Anyway, as I said, read Hennessey's piece if you have questions about the White House.  It's excellent.

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