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White House Control of Domestic Policy Making: The Reagan Years

Article excerpt

As the federal government has increased its role in society, the executive departments have each become responsible for thousands of programs and billions of dollars. The challenge to presidents in the modern presidency has been how to ensure that the myriad policies developed within the departments meet the programmatic and political goals of the administration.

That challenge has been met with a series of different strategies by recent presidents, each of which focused on using White House staff to influence or directly control the policy direction being taken within the departments. The focus of this article is the examination of the structure employed by Ronald Reagan to manage departmental policy making from the White House. I explore several questions: How different was this structure from ones used in previous administrations? How did the Reagan structure operate? and Are there parts of the Reagan structure that can or should be continued?

Continuing the Domestic Policy Office

The 1947 National Security Act institutionalized a White House structure for coordinating foreign policy, but domestic policy remained an enigma with no formal structure for coordinating or guiding the departments. The 1939 Reorganization Act provided a White House staff for presidents, but none had directly focused White House staff on managing domestic policy.

In 1969, Richard Nixon became the first president to develop a formal White House structure for coordinating the departments in the development of domestic policy initiatives. By executive order, Nixon established the Urban Affairs Council in January 1969, creating ten small working groups of cabinet officers. Yet, in spite of the efforts of its executive director, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Urban Affairs Council had a rather short life of only 11 months. Richard Nixon, dissatisfied with the policy initiatives continuing to emerge from the departments, abolished the Urban Affairs Council and created the Domestic Council, also through executive order ("Public Papers of the President," 1970). The Domestic Council was given broader control than the Urban Affairs Council over the departments in managing domestic initiatives and in controlling the proliferation of existing programs.

Every president since Richard Nixon has continued to have a White House-based domestic policy office. Although Nixon and Ford referred to the unit as the Domestic Council, successive presidents changed the name. Carter referred to the unit as the Domestic Policy Group, Reagan and Bush called it the Office of Policy Development, and Clinton has again changed its name to the Domestic Policy Council. Although the names have been different, the goal of each president has been to create an internal structure that ensures that the political and programmatic objectives of the president are maintained throughout departmental policy making.

The Reagan Structure for Managing Domestic Policy Making

The experiences of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter in managing domestic policy making from the White House were mixed. Each had created an office in the White House for domestic policy and had used that office with varying degrees of success in controlling departmental agendas. Reagan built on the experiences of his predecessors and continued the use of a White House structure for managing domestic policy making. The legacy of the Reagan years, however, is that the administration expanded the White House structure to include not only the domestic policy office but a network of interrelated White House offices to oversee departmental policy making. The White House exercised more control over domestic policy under Reagan than in any previous administration.(1)

Reagan's White House network revolved around three key units within the White House: the Office of Policy Development that guided departmental initiatives; the White House personnel office that sought to expand the number of departmental political appointees and to ensure that those appointees were Reagan loyalists; and an internal clearance system that allowed White House staff to bargain departmental policies with Congress without departmental involvement. …