Illustration by Tamara Shopsin
Illustration by Tamara Shopsin

During my tenure in the White House, there was always an unintentionally funny moment when the Cabinet sat down each month to meet with the president -– and I do mean, literally, when it sat down.

Because the number of Cabinet members has grown over the years, and the size of the room in which they gather hasn’t, the top officials of our government are crammed around the table closer together than at Thanksgiving dinner with all the cousins. Virtually every meeting began with one secretary having to climb over a chair arm, or squeeze their rump past a colleague’s face, to reach their seat.

The awkward seating problem illustrates a bigger point: The modern Cabinet has grown too large to be an effective tool to help run the federal government. Seventeen department and agency heads (joined by three top Executive Office of the President officials, the United Nations ambassador and the vice president) now make up a 22-person Cabinet; can you name any U.S. corporate chief executive with that many direct reports?

These unwieldy meetings become show-and-tell sessions where many top officials don’t get to speak; too many talented Cabinet secretaries go weeks without meaningful interactions with the president; and increasingly large and complex mechanisms have sprouted up at the White House to manage, coordinate and resolve disputes among those with overlapping turf.

In his State of the Union address this year, President Barack Obama got some bipartisan laughs for making fun of the way the government is organized, and he promised a response. All indications are that he will come forward with a positive, but modest, proposal for change.

Congressional Oversight

There are powerful forces arrayed against a more substantial transformation. Targeting a Cabinet department for elimination runs into opposition from constituents who are served by it, and from the chairmen of congressional oversight panels who derive power from their jurisdiction over it. And so, in the 222 years since President George Washington convened the first Cabinet meeting with just four department heads, the size of our Cabinet has only grown. No president has ever shrunk it.

The time is ripe for a bold plan to change this. We should return to a Cabinet small enough to allow its members to directly report to the president, without the buffer of White House aides; lessen the need for White House coordination and conflict resolution; and help reduce spending by streamlining at the top, instead of cutting front-line workers or reducing services.

From 17 to 7

Specifically, we should collapse the 17 Cabinet departments to just seven. These would be the original four -- State, Defense, Treasury and Justice (which would absorb Homeland Security) -- plus new departments of Natural Resources (absorbing Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, parts of the Energy and Agriculture departments, and Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration); Human Resources (Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs); and Economic Development (Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, the United States Trade Representative and the rest of Energy and Agriculture).

The plan, admittedly, has its roots in an idea that President Richard Nixon proposed in 1971. While it was rejected then, the case for action is even more compelling now: In the 40 years that have elapsed, five more departments have been added.

In the short term, any reorganization would cost money before it produced savings, and create chaos in the agencies before things settled down. But there would be substantial long-term advantages if the president and the Congress met the challenge.

Greater Stature

First, with the Cabinet reduced to seven members, each secretary could truly work for the president -- see him weekly, report to him -- and gain the stature and responsibility that too few achieve today. Moreover, because this proposal doesn’t “abolish” one or two targeted departments -- but rather, consolidates virtually all of them -- no constituency or group can say it is being singled out for punishment.

Unlike some Cabinet reform plans that are motivated by a desire to “de-federalize” policy in education, labor, energy or transportation, the goal of my proposal isn’t to lessen the federal role in these areas; it is to create fewer, but more powerful, Cabinet members to lead it.

Second, the elaborate White House mechanisms needed to coordinate between Cabinet departments and resolve their disputes could be streamlined, and anxiety about a proliferation of White House “czars” could be ended. The White House shouldn’t have to invest as much energy as it does in managing disputes among members of the “Green Cabinet” or the “Health Cabinet” or the “Economic Cabinet.” The president should have fewer, but more empowered, Cabinet members leading policy in these areas, with the White House staff providing him with the overarching advice and support he needs.

Administrative Posts

Third, because each Cabinet department has its own heavy layer of top administrative jobs -- the alphabet soup of CTOs, CFOs, CIOs, IGs, GCs, CAOs, PROs, and so on -- collapsing the departments could allow for the elimination of countless administrative, non-programmatic officials and their staffs. With cuts now certain under any of the pending budget plans, isn’t it better to target agencies’ executive offices rather than their front lines? Isn’t it better to reduce spending at headquarters so that more programs in the field can be preserved?

Fourth, similar savings can be achieved by closing duplicative programs when agencies are combined. Why are there job-training programs scattered through nine Cabinet departments -- with nine program directors, nine program public-relations officials, nine program evaluators, and so on -- when a single program in a single department would suffice? Consolidation would move resources from the administrative costs of duplicative programs to enable more investment in the programs themselves.

Shift in Congress

Finally, collapsing Cabinet departments would force a dramatic shift in Congressional committee oversight and the confirmation delays that paralyze Washington. The current array of 17 Cabinet-level departments and agencies means that more than 15 committees (and as many as 50 subcommittees) in both the Senate and the House have oversight fiefdoms -- with the Senate panels also having confirmation responsibilities, which are causing longer delays each year.

Fewer committees supervising fewer departments and needing to confirm fewer officials can only improve the way Congress works, and will spare senators and representatives their current overload of assignments.

As a progressive who believes that a vibrant government is critical to our national objectives, I think that reorganizing the Cabinet shouldn’t be limited to incremental change: It should be bold and transformational. Why not try fewer “silos” and more integration, less duplication and more concentration of resources in coherent programs, fewer chieftains and more true chiefs? Rather than cut, cut, cut our existing government, we should fundamentally reshape it for the 21st century.

(Ron Klain is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: Ron Klain in Washington at Rklain@AOL.com

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Max Berley in Washington at mberley@bloomberg.net.