The Tea Leaves of Cabinet Appointments

Republican Rep. Ray LaHood is Obama’s choice for Transpo Secretary. Erica Barnett rounds up the reax here.

Take John Ashcroft. When he was nominated for Attorney General back in 2001, the big concern was that he was a hard-right anti-choice guy. But no one remembers Ashcroft’s tenure at the DOJ for his take on abortion. Instead, questions of detainee rights and the limits executive power dominated his term. And to complicate matters further, while Ascroft seemed to be a hard-core Bushie on those issues as well, we learned after he resigned that he actually took a respectable stand against Bush’s efforts to shred the constitution on at least one occasion (the infamous hospital room incident).

Paul O’Neill, Bush’s first Treasury Secretary, was a similar case. His moderate views on tax policy ended up with him getting shown the door because of his disagreements with White House staff.

Point being, a lot of things can happen in a given realm of public policy that’s far outside the domain of the relevant Cabinet Secretary. World events and White House priorities being among them. Why, for example, did Tom Daschle accept the role of HHS Secretary only under the condition that he would also serve as white house advisor on health care? Because he knew that the Oval Office is where the action is.

That’s not to say that cabinet secretaries are irrelevant. They run massive federal agencies, hire dozens of like-minded deputies to serve under them and carry out policy, etc., etc. But you can’t extrapolate from a single nominee’s record in congress to the kind of policies they’ll carry out as head of an agency. It’s not a straight line at all.

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