President and the Executive Office

President and the Executive Office

The president's closest advisors work with him in the Executive Office. The president's main advisory body is his Cabinet - which he appoints - but the White House Office and the Bureau of Budget also have an important part to play in supporting the president

The 1930’s and 1940’s witnessed a great growth in Federal bureaucracy. From this time, unelected officials from this bureaucracy have proved on occasions to be in competition with the president. Likewise, a president has to keep a close eye on the unelected Cabinet Secretaries who head each Executive department - virtually an impossible task due to the size of the Executive staff and the frequency with which these personnel have to be left to operate without someone metaphorically looking over their shoulders. Though those who head the Executive are hand picked by the president, he still needs as much skill in handling these people as he does with handling Congress.

One of the problems that a president faces, is how to get his staff to do what he wants them to do - they might have different priorities to the president once appointed to a position and no-one would necessarily know what interest group(s) influence individuals in the Executive office. The president is not the general of the Executive office with individuals who unfailingly obey his orders. The departments of the Executive office are meant to provide the president with speedy and simple responses to questions asked to it. This demand has increased over the years. But what if their answers are not what the president wishes to hear?

An Executive department is politically headed by a Cabinet Secretary. These people are in theory subordinate to the president - they are not his colleagues. In America (unlike in Britain) the Cabinet cannot remove the president from office - they can only influence the public every four years in the presidential elections. Whether this would happen is doubtful as these people owe their political influence to the president and if that president is almost certain to be re-elected for a second term in office, rather than criticise your ‘master’, the likelihood is that they will extol his virtues. However, if a president is almost certainly going to lose an election (as happened with Carter and to an extent Bush when Clinton won) and a Cabinet Secretary wants to maintain a position within Washington, she/he might do this and transfer their allegiance to the opposition who are likely to win. If that Cabinet Secretary has a reputation for efficiency and producing a result, it probably would not matter which party she/he worked for as the political differences between the two parties are so small.

The Executive Office does not have the power to decide policy. All members of the Executive Office are unelected. When the Cabinet sits in the White House Cabinet Room, only the president is an elected member. Ironically, the Constitution does not mention the Cabinet. It mentions "the principal officer in each of the Executive Departments" but not a Cabinet. The Constitution only mentions that the president has the power to request "in writing" the opinions of such officers. Therefore, the Constitution itself does not give Cabinet members legitimacy to undermine the authority of the president. The people elect the president for four years. The Cabinet does not elect the president - therefore it cannot remove him.

A member of the Executive cannot be a member of Congress (the Legislature). The Constitution forbids this. Therefore Cabinet Secretaries do not have the opportunity to manoeuvre for the president within Congress. Many Cabinet Secretaries come from law firms, banks, universities etc. (see sheet on the 1997 Clinton cabinet). They run an Executive department on a temporary basis and then return to their career once their time is up or more usually, if they have survived a president’s term in office, when he next losses an election - 

"...moving in and out of government is the norm rather than the exception in American government." (Bowles)

Because of their successful background in law, industry etc., and because of the Executive department they run, some Cabinet members do become significant political figures. Two departments in particular - the State and Treasury - are considered so important that those who lead them invariably have held positions in public life/industry/finance etc. which have already brought them into public prominence even before they are selected for the Cabinet. Some of those who were Secretary of State in the past have remained famous since their political demise and were invariably seen as being subservient only to the president in American politics e.g. Henry Kissinger, John Foster Dulles, George Marshall. All three had a significant knowledge of foreign affairs before they were appointed. The were also well versed in the workings of Washington. For years after he left his office, Kissinger was considered America’s elder statesman regarding foreign policy and served numerous presidents in an advisory capacity. Dulles formulated the "Domino Theory" which dominated America’s foreign policy throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s despite Dulles being a politician of the 1950’s.

By selecting his own Cabinet, a president can also achieve five things :

1) he can rewards supporters

2) he can build support among the uncommitted or former opponents by offering them a post - Clinton did this with his appointment of William Cohen as Secretary of Defence

3) he can build links with Congress

4) he can strengthen links with key groups - e.g. racial, women’s rights - by appointing at least one person from these groups to be represented on the Cabinet. Clinton appointed Cisneros (an Hispanic), J. Brown and R. Brown (African-Americans) and five women to his cabinet in his first term. In his second term he appointed Madeleine Albright to be America’s first female Secretary of State

5) he can appoint to his cabinet those he trust - such as when JF Kennedy appointed his brother Robert as Attorney-General in 1961.

Presidents since 1945, have had different ways of using their Cabinet. Kennedy practically ignored it, relying on an ‘inner circle’ of trusted advisors; Johnson simply used his Cabinet as a sounding board for proposed policies he wanted introduced; Reagan had such a weak grasp of his Cabinet that he frequently forgot who he had appointed to it while Eisenhower and Clinton have used their cabinets in a constructive manner.

The Executive Office of the President (EOP)

This was formally recognised by Congress in 1939 and it is the title of the whole organisation that exists to help and support the president. Within the EOP exists an elite called the White House Office in which can be found the president’s closest personal staff. The man who was behind the creation of the EOP in the 1930’s was Louis Brownlow who, as a distinguished scholar, had been asked to investigate the whole aspect of government management. He decreed that members of the White House Office should be "possessed of high competence, great physical vigour and a passion for anonymity." In a classic example of how Congress and the president can work together, Congress initially rejected the creation of a White House Office in 1937 fearing that it might create a parallel bureaucracy. After amendments by the president and his staff, the bill went back to Congress which swiftly passed it in 1939 as the Reorganisation Act.

The Reorganisation Act gave the president the means and resources to carry out his tasks. It also introduced a legislative veto. This is a procedure by which the huge task of issuing detailed administrative regulations can be delegated to officials at the Executive Branch but that Congress retains the right to prevent those rules and regulations becoming law if it so decides. The Reorganisation Act stated that both Houses at Congress had to veto a bill. If this did not happen, then that bill became law. In 1983, the Supreme Court stunned Congress by declaring that the legislative veto was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers. This decision has called into question the validity of about 200 acts of Congress with legislative veto provisions.

Since 1945, the Executive branch has grown and expanded in line with the growth in the size of the presidency. As many political programmes within the Executive branch developed, so the agencies that ran them also developed. These agencies have built up strong links with Congress as it is Congress that authorises their existence and finds the funds to finance them. Congressional committees also oversee their operation. This acts as another check on presidential power and a shrewd president will realise this. Therefore, he has come to rely more on the specialised staff that work for him in the EOP. In 1992, Bush had about 1,500 people who were officially listed as working in the EOP. However, the real total was a lot higher as a result of temporary secondments of staff from elsewhere whose salaries were paid by other agencies.

The logic of the EOP is that it allows the president to be more influential over subordinate but influential bureaucrats - this influence is via his senior personal staff. Members of the EOP work to ensure that the views and ideas of the president are represented as much as possible in policies and acts. By building up contacts, the EOP tries to assert its influence over the large Executive branch of government. Members of the EOP are dependent on the president for their position, and logically, will work for him to advance his aims. In this way, the power of the departmental heads in the Cabinet is checked (theoretically) and the president does not have to spend time assessing whether they are following his policies or straying away from what is required of them and developing their own. The modern Executive is therefore divided into the Executive branch which has its own departments which are headed by a departmental head. There is also the EOP within the Executive (see chart for the offices found in it) which advises the president and serve to ensure that the Executive departments are doing what is expected of them. As the century has progressed, the Executive branch has expanded as government has become bigger and more difficult to control. The EOP assists the president in controlling the Executive - in theory.

The White House Office (WHO)

This office contains staff who are immediately around the president himself. Though it is part of the EOP, the intimacy of its relationship with the president is such that it can be considered an entity apart from the EOP. There are approximately 400 staff in the White House Office. The president defines the roles played by members in it rather than law. Membership of the WHO does not have to be confirmed by Congress.

"They are the president’s most intimate advisors, to hire and fire as he sees fit, to organise as he wishes, to undertake the tasks he sets, and (be) responsible to the president alone." (Bowles)

In its original version, the WHO was meant to be simply an administrative set-up to add the president in his day-to-day running of the country. However, it has now become a means by which the president can try to enforce his views and beliefs on Executive departments that have become almost self-governing as time has progressed and government has become more complex and large. Members of WHO advise the president if he request their views. They also assess the advice of others outside of the WHO and provide the president with a preferred course of action.

Harry Mcpherson, a senior member of Lyndon Johnson’s WHO, wrote that as he went about his day-to-day work as "Special Counsel" to the president, he had power that was implicit because he was appointed by the president. But he needed this implied power as he had no power in law himself. He also had to accept that the president would, if he felt it necessary, reject his advice and dispense of his services if the president decided that this was the right course of action. Mcpherson stated that his position was almost the opposite of that of the vice-president. The VP had no power but was only a moment away from holding enormous power; whereas the special counsel had much power which could be suddenly withdrawn.

The make-up of the WHO over the decades has varied with presidencies. Some have preferred a fluid arrangement with a number of men at the top to control things; such as Kennedy. The logic behind this was to ensure that no one man could dominate affairs in the White House and also that no one man could possibly cope with the complexities of controlling the WHO. Other presidents have favoured the opposite of Kennedy by appointing just one man - a Chief of Staff - who controlled the affairs of the WHO. Eisenhower and Nixon preferred this arrangement whereby all papers to the president go through one man and all appointments for the president are controlled by the Chief of Staff. This gives the Chief of Staff huge power and the abuse of this power has lead to some Chiefs falling foul of the law - such as Nixon’s Haldeman and Ehrlichman.

Who becomes a member of the WHO ? What would appear to be the sole criteria is loyalty to the president. This is expressed in working for him in elections and saying and doing the right things in public in an effort to push the public image of the president (or in pre-presidential days). Carter’s WHO was referred to by journalists as the "Georgia Mafia" as it contained all those who had worked for him in his campaigns for House, Senate and presidency. Two of Reagan’s three senior staff in his first term worked for him when he was Governor of California. Bush, similarly, appointed those he knew he could work with and had worked with him over the years he had spent in Federal government.

Those in the WHO need to be trusted and they themselves must have vast resources of stamina as they are never off duty. They also need experience of politics and high levels of intellectual ability. Carter broke all the rules of politics when he appointed the 37 year old Hamilton Jordan to be his Chief of Staff as he had no experience, was not trusted by those who worked with the president and infuriated the one political body the president needs to work with - Congress.

"The finest White House staff combine all four characteristics (trust, loyalty, stamina and intellectual ability) serving their presidents with candour and loyalty, over eighteen hours a day for six or seven days a week, clarifying policy and political options for the president in briefing papers where they distil conflicting opinions from numerous agencies across governments within and without Washington." (Bowles)

One group that can oppose a president is that which makes up the Federal bureaucracy. A president has always had limited control over this group and a president could discover that his policies or instructions have simply been ignored, modified or delayed by those in the Federal bureaucracy who might do so because of their involvement in an interest group or because they have allied themselves to powerful forces within Congress.

By employing his own staff in the White House, the president can overcome some of these problems. However, as time has progressed, the increasing size of this staff once again means that a president cannot guarantee that it will do as he wishes. Also, a White House bureaucratic machine does not have any way of enforcing its authority on those who have to eventually implement a presidential act - the Federal bureaucracy. During the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the WHO became so big, that certain members of it had bigger staffs than heads of government departments !! This lead to problems within it regardless of its relationship with the Federal bureaucracy. The WHO can only operate effectively when it works in partnership with the Executive branch.

The Bureau of the Budget/Office of Management and Budget

Originally the BOB was outside of presidential control as Congress did not want the president to have direct control over the budget’s formation. This changed in Roosevelt’s presidency when it became absorbed into the White House in 1939 as the Brownlow Committee wanted budgets to reflect presidential priorities.

The BOB has the task of assessing the financial impact of any presidential policy and it also ensures that financial policies are adhered to throughout the Federal government. It is staffed by specialists. The BOB allows the president to maintain control over departmental leaders as it is he who imposes fiscal policy choices for a department. Departments cannot make their own independent financial requests to Congress. The president intervenes before budget requests are made by a department so that any request reflects the priorities he wishes to be set for the Executive branch. The huge budget bill that is sent to Congress each January is the president’s distinctive choice. The BOB has four specific tasks:

to assist the president with the preparation of the budget and the formulation of the government’s fiscal policy. to supervise the budget’s administration. to promote efficient administration throughout government. to clear and co-ordinate legislative proposals made by departments and agencies and to advise the president of their significance for his overall budgetary policies.

In 1970, Nixon reorganised the BOB to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Under Nixon, it became a department that served the president in a partisan way. Up to this time, it had always (as BOB) been recognised as a non-partisan body that served any president in a professional manner regardless of his political background. Nixon’s move immediately weakened its credibility and Congress created the Congressional Budget Office to get what it believed was balanced financial data which it felt the OMB could or would not provide as it was staffed with Nixon’s men. Despite its loss of face with regards to its public standing after Nixon’s changes, succeeding presidents have followed his example and put their own people into it, thereby pushing through presidential requirements.


MLA Citation/Reference

"President and the Executive Office". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2006. Web.






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