Why don’t presidents delegate more policy power to their cabinet?

President-elect Trump’s selections to head his Cabinet have ranged from good to excellent (Mattis, Price). So far, so good.

Why don’t presidents delegate more policy decision-making power to their cabinet secretaries? Why does White House staff have so much power over big policy decisions relative to the much more visible Cabinet?

  • Most big policy issues cross multiple jurisdictions within the government, especially outside the national security realm. This makes it hard and at times illogical to entrust one cabinet secretary to make decisions that so directly affect parts of the government for which he is not responsible and does not have expertise.
  • It is quite difficult to get one cabinet Secretary to take orders from another. Cabinet and especially sub-cabinet officials will take and follow orders from White House staff that they will not take from their peers in other departments, because they perceive those White House staff as speaking for the president. Cabinet secretaries are successful people who when hired were told they’d report to the president, not to another cabinet secretary. Not a lot of small-ego type-B personalities here.
  • While you could delegate a certain amount of money to a cabinet secretary, it’s hard to delegate amorphous resources like “political capital” or “legislative priority.” To make these tradeoffs the president looks to those with responsibility for his entire agenda and all of his interests, not just a subset. His White House staff are the only ones with responsibility for that breadth.
  • Cabinet secretaries and their staff have institutional interests that overlap with but differ from the president’s. Treasury staff of course ultimately work for the president and they try to advance his agenda. They also have narrower, more local and self-interested priorities. This leads them to think about the Treasury Department’s issues, problems, responsibilities, powers, and points of view; the same goes for other agencies. White House staff think first, second, and third about what the president needs to succeed.
  • Time and place matter. The senior White House staff sit in the West Wing with the president while the cabinet secretaries are in other buildings, some more than a mile from the White House. The president naturally relies on people close to him. Cabinet secretaries spend little time with the president. White House staff are with / near him every day and have a […]