The Constitution charges the president with ensuring that the laws of the
nation are "faithfully executed." The electorate charges the president with
implementing "a coherent program of change." But Congress makes the laws
and the planet's largest bureaucracy implements them, and not everyone in
the chain approves the changes.
The atrocities of 9/11 and their aftermath only italicized a problem that
has been apparent for years - Congress is in love with ambiguous and even
conflicting legislation, a concession to the many individuals and interest
groups that turn to it for favor; and large bureaucracies breed siloed
power centers, overstocked with vital information that cannot be extracted
or acted upon until it is too late.
Faithfully executing laws in this environment is all but impossible, as
noted years ago by Nixon assistant Henry Kissinger in an assessment of the
laws surrounding U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s: "Clearly
Congress provided neither continuity nor criteria to which even the most
scrupulous administration could orient itself ... Of such stuff are
institutional crises made."
Kissinger is quoted in Bradley H. Patterson Jr.'s "The White House Staff:
Inside the West Wing and Beyond" (published in 2000, still relevant and
still available from the Brookings Institution). Patterson himself went on
to note: "In struggling to interpret ambiguous statutes, the president and
his cabinet colleagues are in fact wrestling with the original and
continuing uncertainties of Congress, which faithfully represents its
constituents' conflicting priorities. A no-consensus society produces a
The framers of the Constitution could hardly have foreseen the modern
United States, which generates tens of millions of written or e-mailed
messages to presidents, and countless others to congressional members. But
they anticipated a pluralistic society, and against the specter of
dissension that plagued them they provided a strong executive presidency at
the center of it all.
But the power of the modern presidency is not the power the founders
intended. "Beyond the White House fence is a kaleidoscopic country, a
judiciary swamped with conflicts, a narrowly divided Congress, an executive
branch of thousands of program offices, and 191 independent nations - the
lot of them in endless and rancorous debate about resources and priorities.
Within the White House is a president who feels the full force of all those
needs, dreams, interests, and pressures - and who is himself a warrior
ready for battle."
Even within the federal agencies the executive branch has delegated to
faithfully execute the laws, the agenda is mixed and messy, and may tilt
against enacted law in ways we've learned to call passive-aggressive,
remaining beneath the visibility horizon until too late for correction. The
Interior Department's 10-year tango with the American Indian Trust
Management Reform Act of 1994 is a comprehensive example: The department
applied itself first to protecting the original intent of the law, but only
in order to subvert it to its own ends, a process that may yet succeed.
Patterson described the general pattern. "In contrast to the White House,
the agencies and the cabinet departments have vast resources: Specific
authorities granted in hundreds of statutes; expert personnel - the
repositories of continuity and institutional memory - spread throughout the
country and the world; the ability to buy and build big things; and years
of time. But what no line agency has is the reach - much less the authority
- to give instructions to any other one, or even to extract sensitive
information from another. What no department or group of departments has is
the presidential perspective: The overarching vision of goals and
priorities, the acute political sensitivity to opportunities and limits. It
is predominantly in the White House that these unique abilities reside."
And within the White House, they are concentrated within the authority of
the presidency and the offices of the White House. The nature of the White
House staff is not well known. Public knowledge seldom gets beyond the name
of the chief of staff, or the specialized role(s) of someone like Karl
Rove. But in fact, as of the paperback edition of Patterson's book that
appeared in the fall of 2001, the White House consisted of 130 separate
offices. Staff assigned to those offices may have totaled 5,000, depending
on the unpublished numbers in the White House Secret Service detail and the
White House Military Office. The estimated cost of the White House staff
for fiscal year 2001 - three quarters of a billion dollars - has changed
along with the other numbers, but current numbers are not the point here.
Patterson's point is to familiarize Americans with the president's most
practical tool in fulfilling the constitutional duties and voter
expectations of his office. Patterson' achieves this end thoroughly and
But only a few of these pages concern American Indians directly (in a 1988
book, no longer in print, "The Ring of Power: The White House Staff and Its
Expanding Role in Government", Patterson detailed the view from within the
White House of the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, of BIA
headquarters in 1972, and of Wounded Knee Village in 1973 - pp. 72 - 81).
Yet the book has an important point to make concerning Indian country. The
second administration of President George W. Bush did not feature a
dramatic transition of the White House staff, as may happen when a
first-time president comes into power (the transition from the Clinton team
to Bush's was the occasion for publishing "The White House Staff"). But the
president's own practices and pronouncements, coupled with changes to
committee structure and procedural rules in the Republican-controlled
Congress, give weight to one of Patterson's principal themes - namely that
the modern president and White House staff must take firm measures to
preserve a coherent voice on policy amid the pluralistic outpourings of our
information-saturated constitutional democracy. Policy formulations must
tame a too-wide diversity of views, rather than reflecting them to the
point of public incoherence, if a president's policy goals are to be
achieved and Congress's enactments are to be "faithfully executed."
In his wary use of the free media, his discipline over Cabinet agencies,
his short leash on the White House staff and his preference that
congressional Republicans toe the party line, Bush makes it abundantly
clear that he's gotten that message.
American Indians must get it too - they must not hope to offer "wish list"
legislation in the current Congress, as they did in the last one. In the
future, initiatives like that will get nowhere even faster than in the
Patterson's book, with its emphasis on the necessity of shaping policy as a
protection against the countless constituencies that would bend it their
way, arguably against the interests of the body politic as a whole, would
encourage tribes to find a good fit for a few of their issues within the
streamlined policy preferences of the White House and its dutiful staff.