Bush Is Keeping Cabinet Secretaries Close to Home
Spending Time at White House Required By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page A01
President Bush is requiring Cabinet members to spend several hours a week at the White House compound, a move top aides say eases coordination with government agencies but one seen by some analysts as fresh evidence of the White House's tightening grip over administration policy.
Under a directive instituted by Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. at the start of Bush's second term, Cabinet secretaries spend as many as four hours a week working out of an office suite set up for them at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House. There, they meet with presidential policy and communications aides in an effort to better coordinate the administration's initiatives and messages.
"It allows us to work on a much more regular basis with the Cabinet in helping to manage issues," said Claude A. Allen, Bush's domestic policy adviser. "It also helps us lay the groundwork that is going to be necessary to implement the very aggressive agenda that the president has laid out for his second term."
The new practice applies to every Cabinet agency, although the heads of the Defense, State, Homeland Security and Justice departments are required to be at the White House so regularly for meetings that they rarely use the suite, said Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman. Robert S. Nichols, spokesman for the Treasury Department, said that Secretary John W. Snow was already spending a lot of time at the White House "in large part due to his key role on the president's top domestic priorities, primarily Social Security."
One White House official said the policy has caused some consternation among some of the Cabinet secretaries, but the officers publicly defended the new practice. "Having an office and time to work at the White House is a great way to build an effective and cohesive team," Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao said.
Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, sees its purpose differently. "This administration has been very conscious in the second term of the need to control what happens in Cabinet agencies and to make sure Cabinet officers don't get too far out there," he said. "I find it absolutely shocking that they would have regular office hours at the White House. It confirms how little the domestic Cabinet secretaries have to do with making policy."
Some scholars said the new office-hours requirement continues a trend in which Cabinet secretaries have become less architects of policy than purveyors of initiatives hatched by the political and policy officials in the White House. During the Eisenhower administration, for example, officials hashed out national policy during weekly Cabinet meetings. Now, the Cabinet meets irregularly -- maybe once every 45 days, Healy said -- and those sessions are mostly ceremonial.
"Power has gravitated to the White House over the past 50 years, and it keeps going," said Bradley H. Patterson Jr., who served in three administrations and has written two books on the subject. "I would say development of all major issues important to the president are centered in the White House. They have been sucked away from the Cabinet officers and brought to the White House. It was that way under Clinton, and more so under Bush."
The new requirement coincides with a series of top personnel moves seen as increasing White House control over the government and minimizing dissent, but also, critics say, means the president does not have the benefit of the widest range of opinion.
A succession of trusted Bush aides have been given Cabinet positions for the second term, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Inside the White House, senior adviser Karl Rove has been given an expanded role coordinating domestic, economic and foreign policy.
White House aides with strong ties to Bush also have been placed in strategic sub-Cabinet jobs. Bush also has nominated former White House counselor Karen P. Hughes and Dina Powell, who headed presidential personnel during his first term, to top jobs at the State Department, where they will work on repairing the nation's image in the Muslim world.
In at least one case, a key appointment was made despite the contrary wishes of an agency head. New Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, former head of the Kellogg Co., was set to bring in a longtime vice president, George A. Franklin, to be a senior adviser. But the White House scuttled that plan after officials learned that Franklin had made a $500 contribution to the presidential campaign of Democrat John F. Kerry, an administration source said. Later, White House deputy press secretary Claire Buchan was named Gutierrez's chief of staff.
Bush's moves to tighten control over an administration already regarded as disciplined comes as he is pursuing fundamental shifts in domestic policy that would rival the changes made in U.S. foreign policy during his first term. He is advocating a plan to restructure Social Security, rewrite the nation's tax laws and change immigration laws. He also has proposed an energy plan that includes broader use of nuclear power and oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas.
Bush expects his entire Cabinet to offer a coordinated message to help achieve his goals, and the regular time at the White House with his policy and communications staff is, in part, aimed at keeping everyone in the administration in sync, aides said.
Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University professor who studies White House communication, called the office-hour requirement unusual. "Obviously, this is a way for the White House to make sure what's going on in the agencies," she said. Still, she said, it could also work to the advantage of Cabinet secretaries -- particularly those whose issues rarely rise to Bush's attention -- by allowing them to raise topics with the White House and to build stronger relationships with policymakers there.
"To me it has been absolutely great," said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson. "Before it was very difficult to get interaction or get someone from the White House to come to your office, because they are very busy, too. It has absolutely worked well. . . . During the past five weeks, I have had more interaction with the White House staff than I had in the previous three years."
One senior White House official said he was initially concerned about how agency heads, many of whom are former governors or top business leaders, would take to being required to be at the White House. But the initiative has proved popular, he said.
Spellings, who has worked with Bush since his days as governor of Texas, said having built-in time at the White House "is a very efficient way to work." She said it gives her an opportunity to consult with presidential personnel officials, to meet with top officials, including Bush, or to be briefed on administrative initiatives, such as the Social Security plan, a subject that often arises at her public appearances. In addition, it allows her to tap into the aura of the White House by holding meetings there with key constituents.
Asked whether it was a means for the White House to control her department, Spellings, who spent Bush's first term as the president's domestic policy adviser, said: "It is not that at all. I just think it keeps us connected to each other. It also helps guard against the us-against-them mentality that can develop between agencies and the White House."
Donna E. Shalala, who served two terms as secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton, said having a regular presence at the White House is crucial to developing, coordinating and rolling out new policies. "Maybe Andy [Card] is institutionalizing what is a natural process," she said. "He's an awfully good administrator."
An aide to one Cabinet officer suggested it was a sign of status to be exempt from the requirement. "The Cabinet officers who are involved in the hot issues are over there anyway all the time. The big Cabinet officers are coordinating all the time on legislative strategy, on message, on travel, on testimony issues. Do you think Condi Rice has to go over and coordinate every week? No, it's a constant process. So this may pertain to Cabinet officers who aren't there all the time."