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The clout isn't often stored in the Cabinet

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000

Our president-elect has spent the week "filling his Cabinet," which is a great phrase. Even after I understood as a kid that it wasn't a literal thing, filling a Cabinet still seemed like a fun job, in the way you might stock a toy fort, or a dollhouse.

Cabinet-filling always gets a lot of attention in the news, in part because (1) there is not much else going on as the holiday season approaches and (2) it is the first real evidence of how the new president is doing.

The trouble is that there are 14 of these posts to fill. Just as with a president's choice of vice president, a Cabinet pick might not do much political good but can certainly do a lot of harm.

Nobody remembers what kind of agriculture secretary Earl Butz was to President Ford, but they do remember he was fired for telling a racist joke. It's funny to look back at a discussion of Bill Clinton's choices and see the Department of Energy described as "obscure," given the trouble that Hazel O'Leary and later the Los Alamos nuclear-secrets scandal caused.

The Cabinet does not exist at all in our Constitution. There is no mention of such a thing. It has no legal duty. It has no collective power. It takes no formal votes. It meets only when the president wants it to meet. (Andrew Jackson did not meet with his Cabinet at all during his first two years in office.)

The Framers discussed at great length whether the president needed an official council of advisers but ended up with a vague sentence saying he could ask the heads of the "executive departments" for their opinions in writing. George Washington asked Congress for three departments initially, and Congress obliged him with the departments of State, War (now called Defense) and Treasury.

Over the following 200-plus years, departments were added and removed. Here is the full modern list, in alphabetical order: Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, Veterans Affairs. Other officials are said to have "Cabinet rank" and attend Cabinet meetings.

In any Cabinet, the secretaries of state, defense and treasury and the attorney general, who heads the Department of Justice, are usually the big shots. All Cabinet secretaries must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate but serve "at the pleasure of the president" and can be fired by the president at any time.

Most new presidents brag about the quality of their Cabinet. They promise to use their Cabinet as a sounding board for running the country. Various groups of citizens are pleased to see one of their own as a Cabinet secretary. Modern Cabinets are scrutinized for diversity.

And yet, how much does it really matter?

"Presidential attempts to use the Cabinet as a meaningful decision- and policy-making body have almost always failed," says a book published by Congressional Quarterly titled The Presidency A to Z.

For one thing, the rise of a separate White House staff (all those people you see scurrying around on The West Wing) tends to trump the Cabinet as a real engine of policy. Presidents want to make the important decisions and initiatives, and so rarely delegate much power to the Cabinet secretaries. Many secretaries become captives of their own bureaucracy's interests.

As I said, Cabinet-filling gets a lot of attention about this time every four years. Some of these names we will see almost daily from now on. Some we might never hear from again.

In the end there is only one person at a Cabinet meeting who matters. That's illustrated by an anecdote about Abraham Lincoln, who had appointed some of his political rivals to his Cabinet. "Seven nays and one aye," Lincoln remarked after his Cabinet outvoted him when he asked for advice on a critical decision. "The ayes have it."

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