If some future president honestly wants to fix dysfunctional government, then the repair process must begin at home: with radical restructuring of his own White House staff.
According to a report to Congress, the White House now employs 456 people, earning an average salary of more than $80,000 a year, with average raises this year of $4,400. These numbers don’t include hundreds of armed services personnel assigned to the “Military Office” of the White House, or additional employees working with the Secret Service and other security details, or domestic staff for the executive mansion, or hundreds more serving the National Security Council and reporting to the President. The total number of taxpayer-funded positions that keep this president functioning by toiling away at the White House itself or nearby offices would reach at least 1,500 and, according to some estimates, over 3,000.
This is both absurd and dangerous, of course. The fact that it’s impossible to get a straight, authoritative answer to the question “how many people work for the president?” reflects the chaotic insanity that has prevails in the deeply dysfunctional executive branch of government. The White House staff has exploded in recent years based on one of the core mistakes of liberalism: the unshakable faith that the best way to assure more efficient performance of any operation is to hire more people to do the job. In fact, anyone with administrative experience can tell you that beyond a certain point the opposite is true – enlisting more personnel often adds to confusion and exhaustion for the bosses, leading to reductions rather than enhancements to efficiency.
With 456 individuals on his personal staff, President Obama can’t possibly remember the names, faces, backgrounds and job descriptions of more than a few dozen of them, and yet he’s supposed to be responsible for the noble public service of each of his aides. Imagine that the new president had decided to limit his staff to people he actually knew and might supervise, employing 45 dedicated bureaucrats rather than 456. With this smaller, tighter inner circle, with greatly enhanced access to the president, isn’t it at least possible that the bumbling boss might have learned something about the website problems with healthcare.gov before that disaster became a national punch line? Perhaps one of the reasons that this administration faces chronic problems with accountability is that there are so many hundreds of faceless, pointless White House drones on whom to shift the blame.
For instance, would the Republic survive if Uncle Sam sacrificed the indispensable services of one A. Axios, listed on the White House manifest as “Digital Creative Director”—a title that seems more appropriate for Madison Avenue than for Pennsylvania Avenue? Does the continued functioning of our government truly require a “Deputy Director of Let’s Move!” or a “Director of Video for Digital Strategy” or “An Associate Director of Content” or an “Associate Director of Public Engagement” and an “Assistant for Arrangements”? Reading through the names, titles and salaries revealed by the White House makes for a dreary, depressing assignment – it takes more than 20 tightly spaced pages to list them all, with so many names simply identified as “Policy Assistant” or “Advisor to the President.” How many times a year would most of these obscure “Advisors” actually get to see the president?
At the top of the White House staff reign 22 demigods who each draw the top salary for this sort of government work – $172,200 a year, plus a lavish benefits package, naturally. These well-compensated big shots include a few big names (Susan Rice, Valerie Jarrett, John Podesta) but a great many more count as non-entities. Even among close observers of Washington shenanigans, chances are few could go to a police line-up and identify the estimable Katy Kale, Assistant for Management and Administration, or the venerable David Simas, Director of the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach.
That last title raises another problem: well-paid public employees aren’t supposed to concern themselves with “political strategy and outreach” and that particular job ought to be handled by hirelings at the Democratic National Committee or Organizing for Action or some other frankly political outfit. Wasting public money on well-intentioned but toxic welfare programs is one thing but squandering it on partisan electioneering is something else again.
The context for this shameless stupidity makes the current overstaffing even less defensible. In 1979, I wrote the first (and still the only) comprehensive account of White House chiefs-of-staff: THE SHADOW PRESIDENTS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE CHIEF EXECUTIVES AND THEIR TOP AIDES. To my surprise, I discovered that before 1857, Congress appropriated absolutely nothing to pay for assistance for the president. Even when it came to secretarial functions like answering letters or arranging a schedule, early presidents had to rely on volunteer efforts from young nephews or sons-in-law or, in the case of James K. Polk, from his adoring wife, Sarah. By the time Lincoln came to power, Congress appropriated modest salaries for a secretary to the president, and an assistant secretary to the president, so Honest Abe somehow had to win the Civil War with a White House staff of precisely two. Even the explosion of government programs under the New Deal failed to provide a comparable explosion in presidential advisors: not counting the uniformed personnel detailed to the president during war time, FDR managed to conduct the greatest struggle in human history with at most three dozen executive mansion aides, including his famous “Brains Trust.”
Today, neither president Obama nor his spectacularly feckless chief-of-staff, Denis McDonough, have the slightest idea what is going on in their name in the dank, dark corners of the vast White House bureaucracy. In fact, the president might actually find it liberating, even exhilarating, to get rid of some of these aimless hordes who draw fat taxpayer-funded salaries. Any movement in that direction would surely draw warm public support.
The Republicans, in fact, should run with this issue in 2014 and beyond since the Congressional experience of John Boehner actually provides them with deadly ammunition. When the GOP took over the House in 2010 after four years of Nancy Pelosi’s misrule, they found 1,570 staff members assigned to House committees. Boehner and the boys promised radical staffing cuts and they delivered, dropping committee staff positions by 19% (to 1,277) by 2014. Even the skeptical USA TODAY acknowledged the effectiveness of this reform in “saving taxpayers hundreds of millions.”
GOP presidential aspirants should take public pledges to bring such cuts to the White House. In fact, a conservative hopeful might begin a countdown exactly 365 days before the 2016 election and identify on each of those days one specific White House job that he would cut from the government employment rolls. That would still leave more than 80 people to advise and assist the president and would leave the rest of us with some hope of reform and recovery in our fractured federal executive.