Who Needs a Poverty Czar?

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Stephanie Kuykendal for TIME

President George W. Bush meets with his cabinet at the White House on February 4, 2008.

On the anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, Hillary Rodham Clinton made an impassioned statement in a Memphis speech, pledging to create a cabinet-level poverty czar who will be "solely and fully devoted to ending poverty as we know it in America." Soon after, John Edwards made an impassioned statement about her impassioned statement, just as she had hoped: "America's need to address the great moral issue of poverty demands strong action, and a cabinet-level poverty position is exactly that kind of action."

Except that it isn't. In reality, it's just a bureaucratic shuffle and an exercise in political branding, a shout-out to interest groups as well as to an influential former rival who loves making impassioned statements about poverty. There's no reason to expect this new slot on an org chart to do any more to win the war on poverty than the creation of a cabinet-level drug czar 20 years ago did to win the war on drugs. Hillary suggested it would enhance accountability by making one person responsible for ending poverty: "No more excuses!" But it would actually reduce accountability, encouraging the secretaries of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Agriculture and Treasury to consider the alleviation of poverty someone else's problem.

Which, of course, they already do. So with that in mind, here's an alternative proposal for a presidential candidate who really wants to use bureaucratic change to help address social problems: Don't even think about expanding the Cabinet — shrink it.

George Washington had just a five-man Cabinet, including giants like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. George W. Bush has 21 Cabinet aides, including nobodies like James Peake, Samuel Bodman and Mary Peters; if you knew they were, respectively, the secretaries of veterans affairs, energy and transportation, you've spent too much time in Washington. This diminished stature is no coincidence, since most modern Cabinet aides — especially in the ultra-centralized Bush administration — have relatively unimportant jobs. John Walters and Elaine Chao have served in the Cabinet ever since Bush moved into the White House more than seven years ago, but not only is it unlikely that you can identify them as the drug czar and labor secretary, it's virtually impossible that you can identify anything they've ever done.

There are still a few first-tier Cabinet jobs that come with independent clout: State, Defense, Justice, Treasury and perhaps Homeland Security. But while the size of the Cabinet has doubled since the Kennedy administration, federal policymaking has shifted to the White House, and an ever-expanding army of West Wing staffers now controls most of the levers of power. Most Cabinet secretaries merely take orders on questions of consequence, which is one reason why independent thinkers like Christine Todd Whitman haven't lasted long in the Bush Cabinet, and why the Clintonite Robert Reich wrote a book called "Locked in the Cabinet". It's also one reason why Bush installed former White House staffers at State, Justice and Homeland Security, although Tom Ridge quit in frustration once he realized his move from White House aide to Homeland Security secretary was a demotion in disguise.

A White House can't focus on everything, so the marching orders to Cabinet secretaries are usually to avoid making policy or making news. That's why Bush has preferred loyal, stay-the-course yes-men like HUD secretary Alphonso Jackson, a Texas crony who fiddled while the housing market burned, but knew enough to stay out of the spotlight until he got embroiled in an alleged political corruption scandal and recently announced his resignation. Meanwhile, the Cabinet itself, which used to serve as a presidential advisory board, no longer serves as much of anything. There hasn't been a truly important Cabinet meeting since Bill Clinton gathered his aides to admit his lapses with Monica Lewinsky; the meetings are increasingly rare and heavily ceremonial, which makes sense, because what CEO in his right mind would invite 21 executives to a substantive meeting? Bush already knows his plans for Iraq; he doesn't need the opinion of Susan Schwab or Stephen Johnson — and yes, you get a gold star if you knew Bush's trade representative and EPA administrator. Big Cabinets leak; small coteries of aides who can't be compelled to testify before Congress are much better at keeping their mouths shut.

The proliferation of Cabinet-level positions has been most pronounced in the realm of domestic policy, as various Presidents have tried to telegraph their seriousness about various issues by giving them their own departments. But the existence of the Department of Energy hasn't given America a coherent energy policy; it's just given the rest of the government an excuse to ignore energy policy, while giving energy industries a good target to focus their lobbying efforts. Same goes for the Department of Education; sure, it guarantees education a "seat at the table," but it's an irrelevant table.

In the mid-'90s, Republicans talked a lot about eliminating Cabinet agencies like Energy, Education and HUD, but big government is extraordinarily resilient, and these days there's not much talk about eliminating anything. But even if streamlining government is a political non-starter, streamlining the Cabinet could be relatively easy. A Secretary of the Environment could represent EPA and Interior. (You could throw in the Forest Service — currently in Agriculture — and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — inexplicably at Commerce — as well.) A Secretary of Government Services could represent HHS, HUD, the VA, Education and maybe Agriculture's nutrition programs. A Secretary of the Economy could represent the rest of Commerce, the rest of Agriculture, Labor, Energy and Transportation. All three of them could be big names, with independent bases of power. And a President who really cared about alleviating poverty — or reducing carbon emissions, or any other domestic policy objective — could hold all of them responsible for getting the job done.

This still would not qualify as "strong action"; at best, it would lay the groundwork for strong action. But in Washington, creating a Cabinet-level position is the kind of thing you do as a substitute for strong action. The only surer way to guarantee that the problem remains unsolved would be to create a blue-ribbon commission to study it.