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. This multi-layered approach brought nearly all senior White House staff into oversight of departmental activities.

The Office of Policy Development

By the time Ronald Reagan moved into the Oval Office in January 1981, three presidents had established domestic policy offices within the White House. Although it was far from an institutionalized process, it was by now viewed as an integral part of the White House staff. Under the direction of former Nixon staffer Martin Anderson, the Office of Policy Development (OPD) was created within the Reagan White House to manage the administration's domestic policy initiatives. Anderson had been a key player throughout Regan's presidential campaign as the architect of Reagan's economic platform and a stalwart supporter of the conservative agenda. As a former staff member to both Arthur Burns and John Ehrlichman in the Nixon White House, Anderson had a clear view of how the domestic policy unit should be framed.(2)

Anderson's first move was to change the name of Carter's Domestic Policy Group to the Office of Policy Development to "serve notice that a new administration had taken over" (Kirschten, 1982). He then quickly moved to design an organizational relationship between the departments and the White House to ensure that department programs were in line with presidential goals and objectives. Anderson created a structure for policy development that involved constant interaction between the White House staff and senior department staff.

Proposals that were developed by the departments were guided not only by the White House staff directly but by material prepared by Anderson's office that detailed Reagan's positions on policy issues. Each cabinet officer was given this information, simply referred to as "the notebooks" because they were assembled in thick three-ringed binders. The notebooks outlined Reagan's statements from the 1980 campaign and the previous five years on a broad range of policy concepts (Anderson, 1993).(3) Department staff were told to base all of their policy proposals on the objectives outlined within the notebooks.

James Miller, who followed David Stockman as Reagan's director of the Office of Management and Budget, commented that

Martin Anderson's books were the bibles. The president had a consistent ideology. The bibles provided a consistent framework and consistent ideas. I felt I could predict what Ronald Reagan would do in almost any circumstance from the statements in these notebooks (Miller, 1993).

In addition to the notebooks and other written material to guide the cabinet in policy issues, OPD staff created the cabinet councils were created by executive order on February 26, 1981, dealing with economic affairs, commerce and trade, human resources, natural resources and the environment, and food and agriculture (White House, 1981). Two more councils were created in 1982: On January 29, 1982, the Cabinet Council for Legal Policy was formed, and on September 22, 1982, the Cabinet Council on Management and Administration was established.

Generally, cabinet officers served on three or four cabinet councils, with one member serving on six different councils. In addition to cabinet officers, three members of the White House staff (Ed Meese, Jim Baker, and Vice President George Bush) were added to the list of members of all of the councils. Only one member of the cabinet, the Secretary of Education, sat on only one council.

Although the cabinet council structure was designed to afford the White House greater direct control over policy making, the structure also nurtured the relationships of cabinet officers among themselves. Because cabinet officers sat on several councils, they interacted frequently with most other members of the cabinet. Personal relationships were created, which helped to mitigate the turf battles that often dominate interdepartmental relationships. Cabinet officers worked together on interjurisdictional policy issues toward a common objective. Territorial fights were far less common in the Reagan administration than in the Carter administration, in large part because of the sense of shared mission fostered by the cabinet council structure. Such cabinet interaction was a key part of the cabinet council design, which endeavored to facilitate a team approach to policy making and to minimize attempts by individual departments to move independently.

The meeting schedule was also carefully structured by OPD. Meetings for the cabinet councils were held in the Roosevelt Room next to the Oval Office or in the Cabinet Room but were never held outside of the White House. The meeting time, place, and agenda were all carefully designed to be controlled by the White House. "The genius of the Cabinet Council system," according to Anderson, "was that councils were Cabinet level. You couldn't send substitutes, such as deputies, to the meetings.... What really made the whole thing work was that all meetings had to be in the White House. The White House controlled what time the meeting would take place, where the meeting occurred, and the agenda" (Anderson, 1993).

These meetings dealt with policy issues and, perhaps more importantly, fostered a shared vision for the administration among the cabinet officers. As one of the cabinet officers described the meetings,

Cabinet councils did work and they worked well. At each meeting we kind of hugged each other. The meetings were important because every one understood they we were part of a team and were the president's representatives to the constituencies and not the other way around (Miller, 1993).

One of the more intangible rewards of the cabinet council system was the behind-the-scenes negotiations that often took place in the hallway outside of the Roosevelt Room just before a cabinet council meeting. Many issues were worked out quietly among the cabinet officers before they were brought up at the cabinet council meetings. For example, one of these issues was a pact that the Agriculture Department wanted to make with Russia regarding long-term grain sales. Prior to one of the cabinet council meetings, Secretary of State George Shultz asked Agriculture Secretary John Block to wait a few months before completing the grain deal so that some sensitive arms negotiations could be completed. Block agreed and waited until Shultz gave him the green light to proceed (Block, 1993). As another cabinet officer noted, "It was the fact that the people got along so well that allowed the cabinet council system to be so successful" (Watt, 1993).

The policies emerging through the cabinet councils were carefully monitored by White House senior staff. Anderson met daily with the senior staff to review the policy proposals being prepared by each cabinet council working group. Five days per week at 7:30 a.m. the senior White House staff met in the Roosevelt Room to discuss major issues facing the administration, including those being addressed by the cabinet councils. (Senior staff included 15 to 20 people, such as Anderson, Meese, Baker, Gergen, Darman, the Congressional Liaison staff, and the press office staff.) After the senior staff meeting, Meese and the OPD staff adjourned to Meese's office to discuss policy issues evolving in the cabinet councils and the working groups. The decisions that finally emerged from the cabinet councils were decisions that had been guided and refined at every step in the process by the White House staff (Witherspoon, 1991; 178). Once a policy emerged from the cabinet councils, it emerged with the blessing of the White House.(5)

Although there was a significant reliance on the cabinet council system for policy development, the White House nevertheless acted alone in many instances. Issues that were politically volatile, crossed too many departmental lines, or simply required immediate attention were handled directly by the White House senior staff without cabinet council input, including such diverse issues as Social Security disability and hospice services (Ronald Reagan Library, 1983). Even a package of incentives to appease women's groups developed in 1983 by OPD was worked out directly with members of Congress and not with cabinet officers.(6)

A caveat with this analysis is that the White House, although successful in controlling most departmental policy initiatives, was not totally successful. For example, in 1987 Otis Bowen, Secretary of Health and Human Services, overcame strong White House opposition and succeeded in gaining passage of the Medicare Catastrophic Care Act. Similarly, Surgeon General Everett Koop often moved in directions at odds with White House staff. However, juxtaposed against the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, the Reagan White House had far more success at controlling departmental policy initiatives and minimizing interdepartmental warfare.

Personnel Selection for Subcabinet Positions

The second component of Reagan's network for controlling departmental policy making involved personnel selection and management. Department policy making, as we have seen, had a significant amount of control from the White House through the cabinet council working groups. The White House also controlled the subcabinet personnel involved in department policy making. Not only were cabinet officers chosen for their ideological commitment to the Reagan agenda but lower level staff were as well.(7) The strata of political appointees below the cabinet were scrutinized for their ideological commitment to the Reagan agenda as thoroughly as the cabinet officers themselves. Rourke (1988; 1990) refers to this process as "presidentializing the bureaucracy."

Unlike Nixon and Carter, Reagan did not allow his cabinet officers singlehandedly to choose their deputies or any of the other political appointments in the departments.(8) Pendleton James' White House personnel operation controlled departmental political jobs. All political positions, from deputy secretaries to personal secretaries, were controlled from the White House. Interviewed for the Washington Post in mid-1981, James said that "Nixon, like Carter, lost the appointments process. They lost control to the departments and the agencies. We have maintained control at the Oval Office" (Washington Post, 1981). Cabinet officers were discouraged from even recommending names to the White House (Watt, 1993; James, 1993).

There was a preoccupation by the Reagan staff that the career bureaucracy would actively oppose their agenda. They sought to place Reagan loyalists in management positions and not promote career staff. Where possible, the Reagan staff tried to add more layers of political appointees on top of career employees (Goodsell, 1994; 173). In a blueprint for action prepared for the Reagan administration prior to the inauguration, the Heritage Foundation warned the administration how powerful the bureaucracy was, which the Reagan White House took to heart:

The political executive who is promoting significant policy change within his department should not be surprised by career bureaucratic subordinates engaging in... covert inter-bureaucratic struggle to block his initiatives. Bureaucratic opponents will lobby vigorously against the proposed policy change to client groups, congressional committee staffs, and the press. The bureaucracy's resources for defending its viewpoint, leaking discrediting material, and mustering outside allies are such that it could be correctly called the "ultimate lobby" (Butler et al., 1984; 491).

Throughout the first year, James cleared most, if not all, appointments with the Big Three, as he called the Baker, Deaver, Meese troika, and many appointments he cleared directly with Reagan. According to James, "I met with the president twice a week and with the Big Three at 5:00 p.m. every day of the first year" (Bonafede, 1987; 50). This continual oversight of personnel by senior staff and by the president himself reinforced the importance that the Reagan White House attached to controlling the bureaucracy.

Personnel selection was part of Reagan's grand design to minimize the career staff's influence over departmental policy decisions. Some cabinet officers balked at the directive and tried to bring in their own staff. For example, Caspar Weinberger tried to hire Frank Carlucci as his principal deputy. The White House personnel operation refused to accept Carlucci, who had served as deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Carter. The very mention of the Carter administration sent shutters up the spines of the personnel team. Weinberger eventually won, but Carlucci was one of the rare exceptions hired over the objection of the White House personnel operation.

Cabinet officers were given lists of names that were acceptable to the White House from which to choose their top staff. Most cabinet officers found that they could easily find acceptable people on the lists. However, some cabinet officers made separate deals with Pendleton James that allowed them to put their own people in place. Such a case was Secretary of the Interior James Watt, whose entire staff was handpicked by Watt. All of Watt's staff were former associates with whom he had previously worked and whom he knew shared the same agenda for the department (Watt, 1993). Cabinet secretaries were not completely discouraged from making recommendations to James for their subcabinet positions. As one cabinet officer noted, "If you were doing a good job and had a track record of picking good people, the White House personnel office approved your people" (Miller, 1993).

Most of the cabinet quietly accepted the Reagan demand for approval over their subcabinet appointments. Alexander Haig said of the process, "The names on this list, it was understood, were the ones with which Reagan was comfortable" (Haig, 1984; 64-65). At the top of the list for Deputy Secretary of State, the senior subcabinet position in the department, was Judge William P. Clark of the California Supreme Court, a long-time Reagan friend, but not deeply involved in foreign policy. Clark was subsequently named to the post, much to Haig's chagrin.

It is worth adding that the personnel operation shrewdly coupled loyalty to the Reagan agenda with federal management experience in their quest for departmental staff. Unlike Jimmy Carter, who pursued technical experts for managerial positions, Ronald Reagan pursued managers (Kirschten, 1982).

Some cabinet officers, however, were quite bitter about the degree of control that the White House exerted over personnel selection. Terrel Bell, Secretary of Education, rather bitterly described the process by saying that, given

the determination of Ed Meese and his White House aides to stack my department and my equally fervent resolve to prevent this, it is not difficult to fathom the reasons for the inordinate delays in consummating subcabinet positions in ED... How could I fight back?... I was on my own during the first months of 1981 (Bell, 1988; 43).

Yet in spite of often vigorous opposition to White House control of the personnel process, the White House pursued its goal of centralizing personnel decisions. While Terrel Bell and others complained about the system, they were essentially forced into complying with it. Presidential scholar Bradley Patterson summed up the process when he said, "The Presidential Personnel Office is thus part of the White House gateway, closing out those who don't measure up, beckoning in the select, doing the president's bidding to help him be chief executive in fact as well as in name" (Patterson, 1988; 258-259).

Personnel Management

Personnel selection was coupled with personnel management. Once in office, political appointees were briefed on administration goals and on budgeting, policy development, and other key areas. This task fell to Craig Fuller, the Assistant to the President for Cabinet Affairs, who designed a two-pronged approach to personnel management (Preston, 1984). Top-level presidential appointees met in small seminars of 20-25 with faculty from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University on political and managerial strategies for both policy development and implementation (Pfiffner, 1988). All senior executive service (SES) officials participated in day-and-a-half seminars run by the Office of Personnel Management through the Federal Executive Institute.

Personnel management continued throughout the administration as subcabinet appointments were regularly brought together by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) staff to discuss policy issues in the Old Executive Office Building. The purpose of these meetings was twofold. On the one hand, the meetings served as minicabinet council meetings where interjurisdictional policy details could be further refined. On the other hand, and more important, they gave the White House another opportunity to reiterate the Reagan agenda and confirm that subcabinet officials understood that agenda. Subcabinet staff were constantly reinforced with the idea that they were an integral part of the Reagan team and that their mission was to reduce the number of departmental programs and the size of the departmental staff (Campbell, 1986; 266-267).

Legislative Strategy Group

The third component of Reagan's network for White House control of domestic policy making involved the legislative strategy group. Although the White House worked with the departments to develop policies which met Reagan's political and programmatic needs, these policies were not always acceptable to Congress. Traditionally, the congressional liaison in the White House worked with the departments to modify proposals that could not pass muster in Congress. This, of course, took time.

Time was of the essence to the Reagan White House. Their answer to the problem was to revamp the policies internally without going back to the departments and through the cabinet council system. James Baker headed a small group of senior White House staff known as the legislative strategy group that developed the most advantageous means of securing congressional support for administration programs.

The legislative strategy group was composed of OMB director David Stockman, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, and senior staff members Meese and Baker. Baker also included from his staff congressional lobbyist Max Friedersdorf, public liaison Elizabeth Dole (later Secretary of Transportation), communications director David Gergen, and his chief lieutenant Richard Darman. Their role was to develop the most appropriate public relations and legislative strategy for cabinet-council-developed proposals. The effect of the legislative strategy group was to bring another layer of White House control into the policy-development process and to reduce the power of the departments in that process. Baker regularly dealt with Congress on policy issues without any input from the departments.

Office of Management and Budget

The Office of Management and Budget also played a major role in the development of the final product that went to Congress. As a member of every cabinet council, David Stockman's staff (and later James Miller's staff) was able to push options that cut programs and personnel. When the cabinet councils argued with OMB staff that certain programs simply could not be cut, Stockman overruled the councils. An example of the power that Stockman had over the departments was his decision to cut commodity price supports. The price supports had been developed through the cabinet council system and approved by Anderson's OPD staff, but Stockman wanted to see deeper cuts. Without consulting the cabinet council, or the Department of Agriculture, Stockman made further cuts and worked with the legislative strategy group to push the bill through Congress. Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Economics, William G. Lesher, noted that the "Cabinet Council system broke down. Stockman and others had their ideas of what should be in a farm bill.... Much to our chagrin, that persuasion won out" (Kirschten, 1982).

Stockman was equally hard on individual cabinet officers. When departmental policies did not meet the administration's budget-cutting goals, Stockman met with the cabinet officers and reiterated Reagan's charge to cut the budget. In Triumph of Politics, Stockman (1986) writes,

We had brow-beaten the cabinet, one by one, into accepting the cuts.... We forced health research cuts on Dick Schweiker at HHS. We stiffed Jack Block with soil conservation cuts at USDA. We shackled Ted Bell with a sweeping retrenchment at the Education Department (p. 123).

Some cabinet officers, such as Alexander Haig, felt that Stockman was interfering with policy decisions with the budget cuts that OMB recommended. Early in 1981, Haig declared that he was "mindful of the need for budgetary restraint," but he and "no one else was in charge of policy" (Stockman, 1986; 128). Yet in the end, OMB always won.

Stockman's role in the cabinet-White House relationship cannot be underestimated. Not only could Stockman overrule cabinet officers and effectively abrogate cabinet council decisions but he could make policy decisions without ever bringing them to the cabinet or cabinet council for debate. Perhaps the most significant example of his authority were the 1981 budget cuts. On February 18, 1981, Reagan went before a joint session of Congress to announce his "Program for Economic Recovery," which presented to Congress a list of program cuts, most of which Stockman had single-handedly made without consulting any of the departments (Campbell, 1986; 197-198).


Lou Cannon noted that "the modern presidency created by Franklin Roosevelt is of necessity a centralizing force" (Cannon, 1991; 184). More than any president in modern history, Ronald Reagan centralized the policy-making process. The White House became the center of policy development, management, and congressional implementation. Political personnel within the departments were cleared through the White House and their actions constantly monitored by the White House and the Executive Office of the President.

The legacy of the Reagan White House is that it built a system of control that the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations began but had not fully developed. Under Reagan, the system of controlling domestic policy development from the White House was finely tuned.

The Reagan White House was generally able to control the domestic cabinet officers from moving in directions that were politically and programmatically unacceptable to the president. By constantly meeting in small groups with the cabinet, White House staff were able to keep cabinet officers within the presidential orbit and minimize cooption. Departmental policy initiatives could be focused around the goals and objectives outlined by the White House.

In spite of a carefully crafted structure for managing domestic policy, certain policy initiatives were created by the departments and moved to fruition without White House support. It is virtually impossible to monitor the entire executive branch. However, the Reagan White House, particularly in the first term, developed a policy process that was more successful at controlling department policy initiatives than any of its recent predecessors.

The failure by the three previous administrations to manage domestic policy from the White House stemmed from their inability to focus policy matters around relatively narrow issues and their failure to bring cabinet officers into discussions on the broader issues facing the administration. The Reagan White House succeeded in building a bridge between the White House and the departments that allowed input from cabinet officers into a broad array of policy issues. Cabinet officers considered themselves key players in the development of the administration's general policy initiatives. The White House, however, maintained control over issues that were either politically volatile or required rapid turn-over time.

Is there a lesson from the Reagan experience? Perhaps the most important lesson learned for future administrations is that the White House can develop a workable structure to manage departmental domestic policy making. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter each built part of the frame for the structure which Reagan finally nailed together. The structure remains wobbly, however, for it was a structure that suited the Reagan agenda of cutting bureaucracy, privatizing programs, reducing federal regulations, and bringing down federal spending. It is unquestionably easier to foster strong relations between the cabinet and the White House if reducing programs rather than increasing programs is central to the agenda. If an administration seeks to increase programmatic activities, the battle over limited resources will dominate the relationship among cabinet officers. White House staff will be less successful in binding cabinet officers together when the administration's policy direction is broader and forces competition for funding.

The lesson, however, is not lost. Reagan changed the way the White House dealt with the departments by fostering the sense that policy development was a team operation between the cabinet officers and the White House. If future administrations build on this framework, regardless of policy orientation, they will enhance their success at keeping departmental priorities within the president's agenda.


(1.)Richard Nixon began a concerted effort late in his first term to gain control over departmental policy making by appointing loyalists to key departmental political positions. The events of Watergate cut this strategy short and curtailed White House control of the appointments process. Reagan initiated the same process at the outset of his administration and was able to appoint loyalists throughout the departments.

(2.)In early 1982, Anderson left the White House and returned to an academic post at Stanford University. He was replaced by Edwin L. Harper, a University of Virginia Ph.D. who had been David Stockman's deputy at OMB. In September of 1982, John A. Svahn replaced Ed Harper as director of the Office of Policy Development, becoming the third director in as many years. Svahn had recently moved from Social Security Commissioner (1981-82) to undersecretary of Health and Human Services.

(3.)Anderson had two staff members, Kevin Hopkins and Douglas Bandow, prepare a series of ten notebooks that established Reagan's policy positions for the previous five years. For an overview of this process, see Dick Kirschten, "Reagan Sings of Cabinet Government, and Anderson Leads the Chorus." National Journal, May 9, 1981, p. 827.

(4.)The Cabinet Council system was developed by Ed Meese and Caspar Weinberger during the transition process. Anderson worked with them to develop the process.

(5.)Peter Benda and Charles Levine (1988) observed that "the cabinet council system was designed to keep political executives focused on the Reagan agenda while insulating them from the permanent departmental bureaucracies" (p. 110). See also Pfiffner, (1987). Pfiffner notes that "issues were not to be brought up to the President on a bilateral basis, but that all issues were to be 'roundtabled' by discussing them at a cabinet meeting" (p. 62).

(6.)Because of an apparent gender gap in voting behavior, the Reagan White House wanted to shore up support from women and women's groups. OPD staff worked with Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R-Kan), Barber B. Conable, Jr. (R-NY), ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, and women in the House and Senate to develop a package of initiatives that included programs for dependent care tax credits, increases in the amount of money that nonworking spouses can contribute to an Individual Retirement Account, and pension equity proposals. See Kirschten (1983).

(7.)All political appointees within the departments were, as Dom Bonafede noted, "carefully selected politically acceptable personnel" (1987; 48).

(8.)Although neither Nixon nor Carter began their administrations giving their cabinet officers autonomy to choose lower level staff, both ultimately centralized personnel clearance for the departments in the White House. The use of a personnel clearance system was refined by the Reagan staff, but in fact had been used by both the Nixon and Carter staffs late in their terms. Nixon had Frederic Malek and Carter had Tim Kraft run centralized personnel systems. The Reagan staff, however, integrated personnel clearance into the entire structure of cabinet-White House relations from the outset of the administration.


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