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Returning to a Constitutional Cabinet

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Republicans have been running Congress for almost a year without addressing the most important issue facing us: the size and scope of government. If they are serious about change, they have to make much more serious reductions in federal spending. But cutting expenditures is not enough. Government is too expansive as well as expensive. Thus, Congress should reconsider the scope of the Cabinet, and not just as an afterthought. Although a number of GOP legislators, along with President Clinton at one point, have talked about killing one or another agency, Congress needs to start from scratch in reassessing every department. In short, we need zero-based Cabinet-making along with zero-based budgeting.

The federal government was originally created as a limited institution with only modest, enumerated powers. The first department, created on July 27, 1789, was Foreign Affairs, renamed the Department of State two months later. The Department of War, ultimately transformed into the Department of Defense, came next, followed by the Department of the Treasury. Also in September 1789, Congress created the Office of the Attorney General, but legislators waited another eighty years to establish the Department of Justice.

In fact, it was 1849 before Congress approved the next department — Interior. More than another decade passed before Congress created the Department of Agriculture, which did not become a formal part of the Cabinet until 1889. This was the first, but not, unfortunately, the last, time Congress used the Cabinet to buy interest-group support. The Bureau of Labor was established in 1884, from which sprang the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903, which was split into two separate departments a decade later. A 40-year hiatus in the creation of new departments was finally broken by Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953. Soon thereafter, raising agencies to the Cabinet became a favorite tactic for currying favor with influential interests. Congress established Housing and Urban Development in 1965, Transportation in 1966, Energy in 1977, Education in 1979 (HEW was renamed Health and Human Services), and Veterans Affairs in 1988. The latter was advanced by President Ronald Reagan, the supposed scourge of big government who had promised to eliminate the two DOE’s. As the number of departments expanded, so did Washington’s reach. The result is an ever-growing Leviathan that would hardly have been recognized thirty — let alone 130 — years ago.

Although presidents have promoted this Cabinet sprawl, they rarely seem to have benefited from it. Disloyalty, especially among heads of the “outer cabinet” departments that are largely extensions of major interest groups, has been a constant problem. Even Calvin Coolidge’s vice president, Charles Dawes, complained that “the members of the Cabinet are a president’s natural enemies.” John Ehrlichman, Richard Nixon’s chief domestic aide, said that after their selection, department appointees “go off and marry the natives.” The Cabinet continues to grow, with appointees serving increasingly as political symbols rather than presidential representatives.

Presidents have occasionally tried to bring greater order to the Cabinet. In 1968, candidate Nixon promised to reinstitute “cabinet government,” only to eventually centralize decision-making in the White House. After his reelection he planned to create a “super-cabinet” of the secretaries of Agriculture, HEW, HUD, and Treasury, to be responsible for natural resource, human resource, community development, and economic policy, respectively, and through which all other domestic agencies would report. These ambitious plans fell afoul of the Watergate scandal.

In any case, reshuffling who reports to whom is not the solution to a bloated Cabinet. Congress should cut unnecessary departments and agencies, along with federal spending. The ultimate goal should be to return to the kind of core Cabinet evident before the cancerous centralization of power that first so dramatically accompanied the Civil War.

Veterans Affairs, the last department created, should be the first dismantled. Although America will continue to have veterans for years, there is no reason to maintain an independent federal medical system, especially since VA hospitals tend to provide poorer care at higher expense. Congress should eliminate separate veterans’ facilities and mainstream patients into private care.

The two Carter-era departments should go on the chopping block. As Ronald Reagan recognized, there is no need for a Department of Energy, which, despite having spent $217 billion since its creation in 1977, has not generated a single BTU of energy. Nuclear weapons production, to the extent that it is necessary in the post-Cold War world, could be overseen by the Department of Defense. Other DOE programs — mostly “corporate welfare,” like subsidies for energy development — should be eliminated.

Perhaps no cabinet agency more dramatically symbolizes federal policy imperialism than the Department of Education, with estimated outlays of $32.9 billion in 1995. A gift to the National Education Association by President Carter and his Democratic Congress, this DOE is a relic of the time when Washington was thought capable of solving virtually every problem. Congress could eliminate Education by ending the three basic strands of federal educational policy: college loans, regulation of local schools, and grants to state and local governments.

Student loans have become one of Washington’s worst sacred cows. A college education was one of the best investments a person could make even before the lifetime income gap between high school and university graduates grew during the 1980s. Since students benefit financially from pursuing higher education, there is no reason for Uncle Sam to subsidize them, turning college assistance into yet another middle-class entitlement. Indeed, the current federal loan program has encouraged people with little aptitude or interest in additional schooling to attend college; the flood of federal money has also accelerated the rise in tuition, eating away much of the theoretical benefit to students of federal subsidies.

In elementary and secondary education, the federal government has combined the roles of sugar daddy and national nag, both subsidizing and regulating local schools. This has, alas, allowed political activists like the NEA to push their agendas on thousands of local school boards and millions of families, as demonstrated by the recent flap over national history standards. Uncle Sam should simply leave education to parents, churches, and other community organizations.

The Departments of Commerce and Labor are essentially payoffs to two other major interests — business and unions. Compared to the $1.6 trillion federal budget, Commerce is relatively cheap — only $3.2 billion in 1995. Nevertheless, its panoply of subsidies epitomize the worst of special interest looting and should be terminated. So, too, should the department’s contribution to the federal racial spoils system — the Minority Business Development Agency which, among other things, gives grants for “decreasing minority dependence on government programs”! Deregulation of international trade would eliminate the need for the department’s regulatory functions in this area.

Congress should also end federal regulation of the labor markets and leave job training — with which Uncle Sam has never had much success — to private business. Doing so would save most of the Labor Department’s $31.9 billion budget. The government should neither promote labor unions nor interfere with the right of employers and employees to bargain over working conditions. Today, unfortunately, Uncle Sam is destroying jobs, inhibiting workplace flexibility, and penalizing innocent employers, all the while wasting taxpayers’ funds.

Another special interest bureaucracy with no function other than to enrich the politically potent is the Agriculture Department, which will cost $62.3 billion this year. Created by Abraham Lincoln to generate political support for his administration during the Civil War, DOA serves no useful purpose. No national interest is served by underwriting producers of Angora wool, or tobacco, or wheat, or milk. Agricultural research subsidies are only slightly less wasteful pork. Nor do rural areas deserve today’s open spigot of “development” subsidies — loans to buy and operate farms, build homes and driveways, expand trash collection, develop recreational facilities, and on and on. Congress should kill the programs and department. Forest Service lands, which never belonged under Agriculture, should be sold off.

The scandal-wracked Department of Housing and Urban Development should also be on Congress’ hit list. Today, there is virtually no form of apartment or home construction, purchase, or rental not subsidized by HUD, which explains the department’s 1995 budget of $26.9 billion. However, there is no crisis in the housing market: private industry knows how to build homes, including inexpensive ones. It is primarily local governments, through exclusionary zoning ordinances, antiquated building codes, extravagant fees, and perverse regulations like rent control, that have driven housing costs beyond the means of many Americans. Congress should stop subsidizing this sort of local foolishness and kill the department, along with its spending.

Whatever justification there once was for a Department of Transportation, with outlays of $37.9 billion this year, has disappeared. A national road network was completed long ago; today, the department’s grants go for essentially local projects. Why should people have to send their money to Washington in order to construct nearby roads? Federal mass transit subsidies make even less sense: Uncle Sam has dumped untold billions into underused fiscal black holes around the country, encouraging states and localities to waste their money as well.

The most expensive department — Health and Human Services — should also be eliminated, despite the inevitable screams of millions of people dependent on government checks. Welfare outlays should be abolished; Washington has created and exacerbated, not solved, complex social problems. Medicare and Social Security also have to go, since they are actually middle-class welfare programs — paid for by mulcting young workers — rather than insurance systems, as people have been led to believe.

The Department of the Interior, too, should be dropped as Congress disposes of federal lands. Federal property, especially range and forest land, should simply be privatized; environmentally valuable grounds, including major national parks, could be turned over to environmental groups. There is no justification for the federal government to control hundreds of millions of acres of land. Indeed, Uncle Sam has proved to be a remarkably bad environmental steward, wasting billions of the taxpayers’ money while harming environmentally sensitive lands by opening them up to uneconomic development.

Shrinking the Cabinet in this way — leaving the Departments of Defense, Justice, State, and Treasury in the Cabinet — is only the first step. The Justice Department currently has far too much power. Antitrust law is invariably antifreedom and often anticompetitive; civil rights enforcement has been transformed into an ongoing quota campaign. These functions should be eliminated. Reducing overall federal spending and credit activity and terminating payments to such international agencies as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which have funded political repression and statist economics, would enable Congress to shrink the Treasury Department.

The State and Defense Departments also deserve to be trimmed. In a world of instantaneous communication, the U.S. need not maintain a full-scale embassy in every industrialized democracy, let alone in every Third World basket case. A slimmer military budget, funding a force structure dedicated to defending the U.S. rather than protecting America’s wealthy allies or attempting to impose democracy on poorer nations, would allow a smaller Pentagon.

Finally, although the Cabinet is the most important symbol of federal authority, independent agencies and commissions also should be ruthlessly pruned. The air traffic system could be privatized, obviating the need for the Federal Aviation Administration. Selling the broadcast spectrum and applying the First Amendment to the electronic media would eliminate any justification for the Federal Communications Commission. Cultural activities do not warrant coerced-taxpayer support, allowing Congress to kill the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is not necessary and promotes quotas rather than equality; it should be terminated. So, too, should the Small Business Administration, long known as a petty cash drawer for Washington’s politicians; the Export-Import Bank, appropriately nicknamed Boeing’s Bank; and the Rural Electrification Administration, which subsidizes suburban America and posh resorts.

And these are only a start . The American people demonstrated in November 1994 that they want real change — not tinkering — in Washington. Thus, legislators who view themselves as “revolutionaries” should look beyond a quick budget fix. Rather, Congress should reconstruct the Cabinet based on essential rather than superfluous functions. Shrinking the federal government to its legitimate functions would leave us both wealthier and freer.

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    Doug Bandow is vice president of policy at Citizen Outreach, the Cobden Fellow in International Economics at the Institute for Policy Innovation, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and serves as adjunct scholar for The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a former special assistant to President Reagan; he is also a graduate of Stanford Law School and a member of the California and D.C. bars. BOOKS BY DOUG BANDOW: Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Consensus (forthcoming) Tripwire : Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (1996) Perpetuating Poverty : The World Bank, the Imf, and the Developing World (1994) The Politics of Envy : Statism As Theology (1994) The U.S.-South Korean Alliance : Time for a Change (1992) The Politics of Plunder : Misgovernment in Washington (1990) Beyond Good Intentions : A Biblical View of Politics (1988)