A Cabinet like no other – The Register-Guard
Except for a few remaining vacancies, President-elect Donald Trump has chosen members of his Cabinet. Confirmation hearings begin this week. As a group, his appointees are notable for their wealth, lack of diversity and unconventional paths to top government positions. Trump’s Cabinet may also be given unprecedented latitude in conducting government affairs, serving under a president with little patience for detail and a keep-’em-guessing ideology.
A president’s Cabinet includes the vice-president and the heads of 15 executive departments who are in the presidential line of succession, such as the secretaries of state and agriculture. Seven others are not in the line of succession but have Cabinet rank, such as the head the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House chief of staff.
President Dwight Eisenhower’s Cabinet was described by columnist Richard Strout as “eight millionaires and a plumber,” and the label stuck. (The plumber was Labor Secretary Martin Durkin of the Journeyman Plumbers and Steamfitters Union.) Strout might call Trump’s Cabinet a team of zillionaires and a brain surgeon. (The surgeon would be Department of Housing and Urban Development nominee Ben Carson.)
Several of Trump’s nominees or their families are rated by Forbes magazine as billionaires. Betsy DeVos, chosen to head the Department of Education, has a family fortune of $5.1 billion. Wilbur Ross, Trump’s nominee to the Department of Commerce, is a former banker and investor with assets of $2.5 billion. Linda McMahon, chosen to head the Small Business Administration, and her husband have built a pro wrestling business worth an estimated $1.16 billion. Several others, including Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder and Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin, have fortunes of $100 million or more.
Politico rated the claim that the net worth of Trump’s Cabinet exceeds that of one-third of the U.S. population as “mostly true” — the qualifier was added because many Americans in the bottom third have negative net worth.
According to a tabulation by National Public Radio, 74 percent of Trump’s Cabinet appointments so far are white men, the highest percentage since President Reagan. Twenty-two percent are women — a lower percentage than in Bill Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s Cabinets, but higher than in any recent Republican president’s Cabinet. Trump’s Cabinet would have the fewest non-white members of any Cabinet since Reagan’s.
Nine of Trump’s appointees’ most prominent jobs until now have been in government, according to NPR’s tally, compared to 18 of Obama’s and 15 of George W. Bush’s. Indeed, only 47 percent of Trump’s nominees have any experience in government at all, compared to 91 percent for both Obama and Bush. Trump has nominated more Cabinet-level officials whose most prominent prior jobs were in business than any president since Reagan. None of Trump’s Cabinet picks has a Ph.D., while an average of 19 percent of the previous four presidents’ Cabinet members had doctorates.
This could be an exceptionally powerful group of people. Past presidents have come into office prepared to impose a policy framework on the executive branch, liberal or conservative, and with a legislative agenda that was articulated during the election campaign. Not Trump. He is unbound by ideology and owes nothing to his party’s establishment or interest groups. The president-elect is unschooled in the details of governance and shows little interest in learning them. Cabinet members are likely to have unusually wide latitude in setting goals for their departments and conducting their day-to-day operations.
The prospect of a Cabinet with wide-ranging individual authority, combined with its unconventional collective profile, means Americans can expect the unexpected from a Trump administration.
Ryan Zinke, Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Interior, is an example. He’s a Montana congressman and University of Oregon graduate with a record of support for the usual list of GOP objectives for federal lands: more state control, more resource extraction and fewer protective designations. Yet Zinke has broken with his party on public-lands legislation, has spoken in strong terms about the threat presented by climate change, supports renewable energy development and labels himself a Theodore Roosevelt conservationist. No one — maybe not even Trump — really knows what Zinke’s leadership will mean for the Interior Department, but whatever his plans may be, he’s likely to have wide latitude in implementing them.
Carson is another example. Nothing in Carson’s background as a pediatric neurosurgeon and author prepares him to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with 8,400 employees and a $32 billion budget. Carson is known to be a quick study, but his views on housing issues ranging from homelessness to affordability are unknown. Trump reached outside the GOP government-in-waiting to pick Carson, and will give him a free hand — with consequences no one can predict.
Some of Trump’s Cabinet choices may bring fresh perspectives, with invigorating results. Others may be self-serving or find themselves in over their heads. Both types can expect little detailed guidance from the White House — leaving Congress, special interests and entrenched bureaucracies competing with Cabinet secretaries to fill the vacuum.
Americans rolled the dice when they elected Donald Trump, and a high-stakes experiment in government is about to begin.
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