With another presidential election cycle close upon us, we are once again hearing the full-throated campaign promises from the GOP candidates to close one or more cabinet departments. As a fan of smaller, leaner government, I’m all for this. What is lacking however is the rationale that argues for or against any one department; i.e., why do you want to close the Department of Xxxxx (or, conversely, why do you want to keep it open)?
Probably the best thing to do is go back to the beginning and refer to the Constitution; specifically, Article II, Section 2 allows that the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, “shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls…whose Appointments are not otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law.” So far, so good. There is Constitutional authority to appoint cabinet members. No specific cabinet positions are named but our founders thought it reasonable and prudent that the Chief Executive would require such officers to help oversee the day-to-day functions of government.
When George Washington assumed the Presidency, he made due with four cabinet officers: Secretary of State (Thomas Jefferson), Secretary of the Treasury (Alexander Hamilton), Secretary of War (Henry Knox) and the Attorney General (Edmund Randolph). For each one of these positions, justification can be found in the Constitution. Article II alone allows the President the power to make treaties and appoint ambassadors (State), makes the President the Commander in Chief (War), requires that the President “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” (Attorney General).
Since Washington’s time, the number of cabinet officers has metastasized to 15. In addition to the four already mentioned, they include the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs. (It probably needn’t be mentioned that the Secretary of War is now known as the Secretary of Defense.) As a tax payer and consumer of government services, it is worth asking the question: What is the justification for all these cabinet agencies?
Although Article I, Section 8 specifically refers to the power of the Congress to make laws governing certain activities, it stands to reason that the President, as the “Chief Law Enforcement Officer,” would need a cabinet level agency to supervise these functions. A quick review of this section appears to provide justification for the original four cabinet posts plus one other. The Congress can “…regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes” (Commerce Department).
So there is Constitutional justification for five of 15 cabinet agencies; where does that leave the other 10? I can think of perfectly valid reasons for some of these departments but others just don’t seem to have a valid or legitimate reason for existence. Here are some thoughts on several more cabinet agencies that seem to serve a useful public function:
• Interior – Since the founding of the country, the federal government has held public lands in trust for the citizens of the United States. These lands include national monuments, parks and forests; as well as large tracts under the stewardship of the Bureau of Land Management. Like any trust, the assets must be actively managed to ensure their preservation.
• Energy – This is one department often mentioned as a candidate for elimination but I disagree with this simply because its biggest function is regulating nuclear power in this country. Somehow I don’t think we’d be better off with each state imposing its own set of regulations on this form of power generation. Were we to eliminate all nuclear power, to include nuclear powered ships from the Navy, there would be an argument for eliminating this agency.
• Transportation – I find the argument for this agency equally as compelling as that for Energy. As someone who spends a lot of time on airplanes, I don’t want each state to regulate air travel and controlling air traffic within their respective borders.
• Health and Human Services – I suppose this can be justified under the “general health and welfare” clause of the constitution. Certainly if Obamacare is not repealed, health will definitely become federal mandate. Notwithstanding the nationalization of health care, there are sufficient legitimate social welfare programs to justify this department (the government’s traditional role of caring for widows and orphans).
• Homeland Security – Regrettably, we’ve come to a time where this department is probably a necessary evil. Absolute freedom and absolute security are mutually exclusive conditions. As much as I dislike the invasive airport screening, I resent even more some terrorist trying to kill me. Since what this agency does is mostly law enforcement, one could argue that it should fall under the Attorney General but DHS is already huge and combining it with another cabinet agency would create something unmanageable.
This leaves five cabinet agencies without any apparent reason for existence. So what to do with them?
• Agriculture – I’m not sure what this agency does other than fight for subsidies for farmers and ranchers. Farming and ranching is commerce so why can’t whatever legitimate functions remain in the DOA be transferred to the Commerce Department?
• Education – This is a department established as political payback to the teachers unions. Since its creation, academic achievement has gone nowhere but down. This is an agency that exists for no other reason than to take money from the taxpayer in each state, skim off a chunk to feed the bureaucracy and return the balance to the states. Most importantly, there exists no Constitutional justification for federal interference in education – something that is best dealt with at the local level.
• Housing and Urban Development – Is there anything this agency does that cannot be subsumed by Health and Human Services? One caution, before combining these two already ponderous departments, cut away the useless functions of both. For example, get them out of the home loan business – that hasn’t worked out too well.
• Labor –This agency exists to pick winners and losers by favoring small groups of workers over others; enough said.
• Veterans Affairs – While this department has strong emotional appeal (I am a disabled veteran), there is nothing here that can’t also be taken over by HHS or, if it would be more manageable, by the Department of Defense.
Regardless of whether someone agrees or disagrees with this reasoning, there are functions in all cabinet level agencies that can be consolidated, eliminated, returned to the states or somehow streamlined. This step is especially important if any of the existing cabinet departments are to be combined so as not to create a behemoth that runs out of control.
Cabinet agencies can be eliminated. The Postmaster General was a cabinet-level position until 1971 when the Post Office Department became the United States Postal Service. The elimination of the Post Office from the cabinet did not cause the government to spasm and stop nor did the country go into convulsions. In fact, everything proceeded apace. We can do this again.