Clout is Key; Post Lacks it

October 9, 2001

Tom Ridge has faced many challenges in his long public-service career, not the least of which was as a Marine in Vietnam. But he may have met his match in trying to bulldoze the bureaucratic turf that surrounds his call to strengthen homeland security. Armed only with the power to persuade, Ridge must coordinate a group of agencies that have short incentives to work together and long histories of working apart.

Ridge does have the president’s confidence, but his appointment as a member of the president’s Cabinet is only honorary, and he can only make recommendations for action, not implement them. He has no sticks to use against his adversaries and no carrots to offer his friends. As a member of the White House staff, he serves at the pleasure of the president and cannot testify before Congress on the budget or personnel needs of the agencies he oversees.

The only power he has is access to the president, but it is a power he shares with dozens of other White House staffers, and one he dare not use. The first time he asks the president to intervene on his behalf with some recalcitrant department head will be the last time he is taken seriously. Although he will have a West Wing office, the word is that he will spend most of his time with his staff over in the Old Executive Office Building across the alley. And when he is not in the West Wing, he might as well be in Baltimore.

This is not to discount Ridge’s considerable experience and persuasive muscle. But there is only so much a single adviser can do to flatten the barriers to cooperation without the keys to the bulldozer. Congress could easily help its former colleague by giving Ridge real Cabinet status as the director of a new Office of Homeland Security within the Executive Office of the President.

As a Senate-confirmed appointee, Ridge could testify on the adequacy of agency responses, a significant lever for securing agencies’ attention. He could also be given a mandate to certify the budget requests of each agency he oversees, another lever.

At the end of the day, there are only two things that matter in bureaucratic politics: money and personnel. Under the president’s order, Ridge will have little influence over either. This is a time to give Ridge every opportunity to succeed, not create a challenge that can be met only through a long campaign against bureaucratic inertia.

Paul C. Light is Vice President and Director of Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution and Senior Adviser to The Presidential Appointee Initiative.