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Reform As Affirmation: Jimmy Carter's Executive Branch Reorganization Effort.

The paradox of the modern presidency is that while each administration is an idiosyncratic product of personality, context, and group dynamics, presidents tend to behave and perform in similar ways. Scholars' tendency to concentrate on the similarities that cut across administrations prompted Fred Greenstein (2000) to title his most recent book on the presidency The Presidential Difference. Greenstein's contention that "the personal attributes distinguishing one White House incumbent from another ... shape political outcomes" is, however, a minority view (p. 3). Marc Landy and Sidney Milkis, in their work on "presidential greatness," for example, suggest that traits or skills that might have been sufficient to elevate a president to greatness in the past are now negated by the demise of localized parties "as agents of popular rule." All presidents are now practitioners of a "plebiscitary form of politics that mocks the progressive concept of `enlightened administration' and exposes citizens to the sort of public figures who exploit their impatience with the difficult tasks involved in sustaining a healthy constitutional democracy" (Landy and Milkis 2000, 239, 240).

Many earlier works attributed modern presidents' convergence to their common difficulties in negotiating the tension between public expectations and institutional capacity. Theodore Lowi, Jeffrey Tulis, and Samuel Kernell wrote influential books during the 1980s that traced the source of presidential failure to the development of a "personal," "rhetorical," or "public" presidency that fueled public demands for significant change that presidents lacked the tools to meet (Lowi 1985; Tulis 1987; Kernell 1986).

A more recent influential pass at the troubling relationship between political context and institutional instruments was made by Stephen Skowronek (1993) in his book, The Politics That Presidents Make. Skowronek argued that all presidents operate both within "secular" and "political" time. The "political discretion and governing responsibility" (Skowronek 1993, 31) that are integral to the modern presidency interact with presidents' placement in political time either to expand or contract their authority claims or "warrants." Skowronek maintained that most presidents come to power at inauspicious points in political time when their authority to "repudiate" the past and reconstruct the regime is limited. They are obliged instead to practice a "politics of articulation" or a "politics of disjunction," designed either to consolidate past gains or elude regime collapse.

A complementary stream of work called the "new institutionalism" suggests that institutional structures and practices also impede modern presidents' efforts to translate public demands for change into reconstructive reforms. Scholars in this camp maintain that "political institutions shape the interests, resources, and ultimately the conduct of political actors" (Smith 1988, 91). The definition of institutions offered by these scholars is capacious, covering social norms, popular beliefs, rhetorical practices, symbols and rituals, and internal institutional processes that influence political behavior (March and Olsen 1984, 737). These institutional pressures combine in sometimes odd and unpredictable ways, generating decision-making processes that are nonlinear and predicated more on serendipity than systematic thought. Presidents' reform proposals often become "garbage cans" that attract "collections of solutions looking for problems, ideologies looking for soap boxes, pet projects looking for supporters, and people looking for jobs, reputations, and entertainment" (March and Olsen 1983, 286).

The primary challenge of presidential leadership is negotiating the conflicting demands posed by, on one hand, popular demands for systemic change and, on the other hand, contextual and institutional pressures that push presidents to adopt past practices, beliefs, and ideas. Jimmy Carter appears to have been the recent president least equipped to meet this leadership challenge. Skowronek cites Carter's presidency as one of the "prime examples" of a "politics of disjunction" (Skowronek 1993, 39). Carter's authority was weakened by a position in political time that caused him to be "affiliated with a set of established commitments that [had] in the course of events been called into question as failed or irrelevant responses to the problems of the day" (Skowronek 1993, 39).

Carter's difficulties were magnified by a prickly temperament and a fascination with process and technique. Skowronek characterizes the latter as typical of presidents caught in a politics of disjunction. "The reification of technique" offers these presidents a way to seek new "warrants for political action" when the public has rejected the regime's substantive commitments (Skowronek 1993, 362). But Carter's dogmatic, moralistic, inflexible, and even hubristic approach to leadership predisposed him to suffer even more severely than his predecessors from frustration and bitterness,(1) Carter was dismissive of the office's constraints and unwilling to tolerate anything but absolute political victory. His sincere belief in his own intelligence and abilities as a manager led Carter to micromanage his White House, insisting that his aides possess his mastery of the details of public policy. Carter also had a political tin ear that sabotaged his efforts to win congressional enactment of many of his initiatives. "Rather than viewing compromise as the essence of politics, [Carter] seems to have perceived it as a readiness to do what one knows is wrong" (Greenstein 2000, 141).

But even Jimmy Carter was sometimes willing to deviate from his original vision. Carter's executive branch reorganization proposals were the product of a nonlinear decision-making process that took Carter to an unanticipated destination. Carter and his aides' initial impulse was to pursue a novel "bottom-up" approach to reorganization. They intended to tailor their proposals to fit the problems identified in a thorough review and analysis of the executive branch's performance rather than impose a "one-size-fits-all" structural reform on every department and agency. But the participants in the President's Reorganization Project (PRP) quickly gravitated to the "top-down," structural approach to administrative reform favored by previous administrations.
 Surprisingly, the ideas that began to emerge from the Reorganization
 Project were far more structural than one might have expected.... Belying
 its own promise to begin administrative reform with problems at the bottom
 of government, the administration drifted into a simple, structural
 approach. (Arnold 1998, 312, 314)

The Carter reorganization planning team's discussions treated structural reform not as merely one among many possible instruments for addressing the idiosyncratic problems of individual departments and agencies. They instead characterized structural reform as the linchpin of their reorganization package and spent much of their time casting about for "problems" that structural reforms could address. Carter readily accepted the recommendations of his planning group and displayed surprising flexibility in his negotiations with Congress, acceding to compromises in a way that was out of character for such a dogmatic president.

A single instance of flexibility cannot offset the considerable evidence of Carter's stubbornness to the point of self-destruction. But it can offer a "critical case study" whose implications transcend the specifics of the Carter presidency (Eckstein 1975).

The Carter Reorganization Project's deliberations provide empirical evidence of the institutional constraints on presidential decision making common to all administrations. This article will present the reorganization planning process as exemplary of the "garbage can model" of decision making. It will argue that the Carter planning team first latched onto a solution that had floated through past administrations and then sought problems to attach to that solution. The Reorganization Project's decision-making process was thus "solution driven" rather than "problem driven." This view of institutional decision making makes the Carter administration's adoption of structural reform less "surprising" and more explicable.

Structural reform's appeal to the Carter administration stemmed from its singular ability to provide symbolic benefits that were unattainable via a bottom-up, "problem- and program-oriented" (Arnold 1998, 312) approach to reform. March and Olsen (1984, 742) argue that "politics and governance are important social rituals" that affirm community values and beliefs. Comprehensive reorganization proposals contribute to this process by confirming Americans' belief in "progress through intentional action" (March and Olsen 1983, 291). Carter could use structural reform to demonstrate to both a skeptical public and Washington community his "fundamental confidence in the possibility of directing and controlling human existence, or, more specifically, the government" (March and Olsen 1983, 291). What began as an effort to tailor solutions to fit the problems unearthed by a review of specific programs became instead a campaign to discover a rationale for a reform proposal that promised little change in agency performance but could make a statement about Carter's "mastery of government." Carter's willingness to compromise away some central elements of his reorganization plans is understandable from this perspective. If the important goal is to achieve some kind of visible reorganization, then even the most rigid president can be flexible on the details.

If a president as determined as Jimmy Carter could not prevent institutional pressures from redirecting his reform vision, then it is unlikely that presidents less engaged in their administrations will be able to impose a linear, "problem-driven" approach to reform. Carter's reorganization effort can thus be viewed as a critical, "least-fit" case confirming both Skowronek's and the new institutionalists' insight that presidents must contend with the past as they seek to redefine the future.

Reforming the Bureaucracy from the "Bottom Up"

Jimmy Carter voiced a strong commitment to administrative reform during his campaign for the presidency in 1976. Carter made clear as early as the New Hampshire primary that comprehensive reorganization of the executive branch would constitute the centerpiece of this reform effort, stating at one of his early campaign rallies, "Don't vote for me unless you want to see the executive branch of government reorganized" (Dempsey 1979, 74). This promise to reorganize the executive branch quickly became a leitmotif of Carter's campaign speeches, as President Carter readily conceded in an interview conducted soon after his election:
 I think of all the campaign speeches that I made throughout the Nation, the
 most consistent commitment that was made to the American people was that I
 would move as quickly as possible to improve the efficiency and the
 effectiveness and the sensitivity of the Federal Government bureaucracy in
 dealing with the needs of the American people.... We'll begin the process
 as quickly as we can. (Arnold 1998, 310)

The first presidential candidate to make executive branch reorganization a major campaign theme wasted little time after his election in putting together a reorganization planning group (Arnold 1998, 308). Carter chose to reject the traditional "commission" model of reorganization planning adopted by most of his predecessors in favor of installing the planning operation in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and manning it with members of his administration. Carter's reorganization proposal thus would be cobbled together by young professionals and political activists rather than the "wise men" who had been enlisted by past presidents (Arnold 1998, 308-9). This decision provoked some debate within the administration. Richard Pettigrew, a Carter adviser who had been instrumental in Florida's reorganization of its executive branch in the early 1970s, drafted a memorandum to Hamilton Jordan that, while pretending to offer a dispassionate assessment of the pros and cons of the "OMB option" and the "Commission option," clearly favored the latter over the former. Pettigrew argued that the OMB option would result not in comprehensive reorganization but in a "piecemeal, incremental effort [that] will respond to pressures, present plans without adequate public consultation or input and run a high risk of rejection in Congress except where `pabulum' revisions are proposed." Pettigrew averred that the commission option, in contrast, would give the recommendations the kind of public visibility and credibility that would impress Congress while ensuring that these recommendations would be based on "an in-depth look at all aspects of the executive branch."(2)

Pettigrew's recommendation, however, did not persuade Carter to abandon the OMB option. Soon after Pettigrew's memo, Carter established the PRP within the OMB and placed Harrison Wellford, who had headed the reorganization planning group during the transition, in charge of the new division.

Carter's decision to select the OMB option can be attributed to his preference for an incremental approach to reorganization. Peri Arnold maintains that Carter recognized that he was unlikely to replicate on the federal level his success in pushing through the Georgia legislature a wholesale reorganization of the executive branch. "The constraints on reform in the federal government" virtually ensured that comprehensive reorganization would have to be achieved through a number of small steps, each requiring hard-fought negotiations with interest groups, key members of Congress, and executive officials before they could be taken:
 Unlike in Georgia, reorganization at (the federal) level would not be
 novel, and the resistance against some of the reforms that might be
 proposed would be far more difficult to overcome than had such opposition
 in Georgia. (Arnold 1998, 310)

The administration believed that the success of this incremental approach to comprehensive reorganization hinged on winning congressional reauthorization of presidential reorganization authority. The Reorganization Act of 1949 had provided presidents with the prerogative to submit reorganization plans to Congress that would go into effect if they were not vetoed by either the House or Senate within sixty days of submission. The act was amended in 1964 to prohibit presidents from using reorganization plans to consolidate, abolish, or create cabinet-level departments, and it was amended again in 1971 to limit the president to one plan in a thirty-day period and to require that each plan deal with only one "logically consistent subject matter." Congress, however, had allowed this presidential reorganization authority to lapse in 1973. The Carter White House initially believed that the need to win congressional reauthorization of reorganization authority provided it with an opportunity to expand the president's prerogatives to restructure the executive branch. Members of the administration debated whether to pressure Congress to allow the president to use reorganization plans to create new departments, present omnibus plans rather than "logically consistent" proposals, submit more than one plan within a thirty-day period, and oblige both houses of Congress rather than a single house to veto reorganization plans. The most dramatic of these options, and the most important for the future success of the Carter reorganization effort, was fighting to gain the authority to create executive departments by reorganization plan. Pursuing this option, however, promised to provoke strong congressional opposition, as Harrison Wellford and John Harmon made clear to Carter soon after his election:
 The question of whether such a provision should be included in your
 proposed RPA [Reorganization Plan Authority] legislation turns on an
 assessment of whether Congress would even consider such a provision today
 and, if so, how much it would cost you politically to achieve passage of
 departmental authority. We have not yet engaged in an extensive political
 analysis, but it seems unlikely that Congress will buy RPA legislation that
 gives the President the power to create, let alone consolidate or abolish,
 executive departments.(3)

While Wellford and Harmon opined at another point in their memorandum that "the power to create new departments by plan is probably worth fighting for," it was clear that they believed that the political stakes were too high to jeopardize the reauthorization of reorganization authority by overreaching. Wellford and Harmon maintained that winning this battle with Congress was critical not only for the success of Carter's reorganization effort but also for convincing the public that Carter was serious about working with Congress to fulfill his campaign promises:(4)
 Reorganization plan authority legislation meets an immediate political need
 both with the public and with Congress.

 Given the expectations about government reorganization that have been
 raised by your campaign, it is important that you take the initiative on
 this issue as quickly as possible to show the American people that they can
 depend on your promises. As one of the first initiatives of your
 administration, RPA legislation will be viewed as the initial test of
 whether you can work effectively with Congress. You must act swiftly, but
 you must also act successfully, because it is unthinkable that you would
 not prevail on an issue to which you have given such high priority.(5)

This analysis suggested that the Carter White House would cease its campaign to expand the president's reorganization authority at the first hint of congressional opposition. This hint was quickly dropped by Representative Jack Brooks, the chair of the House Government Operations Committee, who objected to the legislative veto provision in the reorganization statute. In 1971, Brooks had proposed an amendment to the Reorganization Act that would have required both houses of Congress to approve presidential reorganization plans within sixty days of their submission. Brooks had promised to present a new version of this amendment when Carter presented his proposal for reauthorization of the Reorganization Act.(6) Brooks's skepticism about reorganization authority promised a politically costly fight in the House if the administration pushed to expand reorganization authority in ways that further impinged on Congress's prerogatives.

The Carter administration responded to Brooks's threat by ending its flirtation with the notion of broadening reorganization authority to encompass the creation of executive departments and concentrating instead on defeating the Brooks amendment and winning more modest concessions from Congress. Carter traded an agreement to endorse a provision that would allow the president to amend his reorganization plans within thirty days of submission in return for Brooks's withdrawal of his amendment. Brooks believed this would give Congress more input into reorganization plans by allowing it to pressure the president to modify his or her plans as a condition of congressional support (Arnold 1998, 309). The Carter administration, however, won some significant victories of its own. Congress agreed to allow presidents to submit more than one plan within a thirty-day period, permit omnibus reorganization plans, and extend reorganization authority for four years instead of the two years past presidents had enjoyed (Arnold 1998, 309).

Harrison Wellford encouraged Carter to treat his reorganization authority as one instrument among many for prosecuting a bottom-up approach to administrative reform. Wellford had described this approach in congressional testimony supporting the supplemental appropriation needed to fund the PRP. In this testimony, Wellford contended that what would distinguish Carter's administrative reform effort from his predecessors' would be its scrupulous refusal to embrace any theory or rigid set of principles (Arnold 1998, 311-12). The PRP would be, instead, problem- and program-oriented. Wellford suggested that the administration would use its reorganization authority only when it offered the best approach to a particular administrative problem. Structural reform thus would be merely one instrument among many the administration might use to improve government performance. This approach would ensure that the administration's reorganization efforts would not be "box-shuffling" exercises but would be tailored to solve discernible managerial and service delivery problems (Arnold 1998, 312).

Wellford was equally skeptical about structural change when speaking to other members of the administration. For example, in a memo to White House aide Greg Schneiders, Wellford stated that the PRP "look[ed] at consolidation and streamlining as a means of making programs more effective, but not as an end in itself."(7) Wellford's statements received a sympathetic response from other members of the administration who also sought to liberate Carter's administrative reform effort from the shackles of "abstract" theory (Arnold 1998, 313). Keith Miles, for example, characterized the PRP's lack of guiding principles as a virtue:
 The bottom-up approach we are taking ... suggests that we will identify a
 variety of problems which require different solutions reflecting many
 different organizing principles. Thus, if anything, our organizing
 principle is, and rightly should be, "whatever works best."(8)

Wellford never abandoned his conviction that the PRP had pursued a "bottom-up" or "problem-driven" approach to reorganization. Peri Arnold reports that in an interview conducted in June 1980, Wellford "denied that any overall principle, theory, or view of organization, administration, or the governmental system guided the planning operation" (Arnold 1998, 330).

But the PRP's "bottom-up" analysis of the executive branch was driven by the assumption that structural reform would be the linchpin of Carter's administrative reform proposal. Peri Arnold notes that one of the PRP's first projects was to compile an "inventory of all federal entities." The long list that emerged caused the PRP to focus on reducing the number of agencies rather than on addressing specific management or service delivery problems:
 Belying its own promise to begin administrative reform with problems at the
 bottom of government, the administration drifted into a simple, structural
 approach. (Arnold 1998, 314)

Subsequent discussions about reorganization among members of the PRP and White House staffers concerned not whether to include structural change in the reorganization proposal but how to package the foreordained structural reforms. One of the most important of these early discussions took place on November 8 and 9, 1977, at Airlie House. The spirited debate at this meeting pivoted on questions of the timing, form, and goals of the proposals for structural change rather than on the need or the lack of need for them. The PRP's suggestion that Carter postpone proposing major structural change until after accomplishing all that he could through a series of incremental, carefully targeted reforms generated an outpouring of hostile memoranda. One Carter aide, Si Lazarus, did argue for reorienting the administrative reform effort toward procedural changes and internal agency reforms that could be executed without recourse to legislation or reorganization plan.(9) But even Lazarus concluded with a plea for large-scale structural changes. Lazarus recommended that the administration emphasize "a relatively few, big reorganization plan(s)/legislative packages which clearly show dramatic advances."(10) Much of Lazarus's memo was devoted to enumerating and analyzing the various problems that might be addressed by reorganization. Lazarus, however, viewed reorganization as primarily a symbolic exercise designed to demonstrate to the public the administration's commitment to reform.

Lazarus was not the only participant in the Airlie House discussions whose support for structural change colored his characterization of a "bottom-up" approach. Keith Miles praised the PRP's recommendations but took it to task for failing to identify the "worthy set of goals" he asserted were implicit in its recommendations.(11) Miles's observation suggests that the PRP had not followed the bottom-up approach Wellford had promised since such an approach would have required the PRP to identify problems or goals prior to constructing its reorganization proposals. Both Lazarus's and Miles's effort to formulate or tease out reorganization's goals suggests that the PRP had neglected to take the first step required by a "problem-driven" approach to administrative reform.

The presumption that structural reorganization would be the central element of Carter's administrative reform effort narrowed debate to questions of the packaging and size of the structural reform effort. Carter would eventually link reorganization to the same goal he had used to such good effect in promoting his reorganization of Georgia state government: the creation of a bureaucracy more responsive to the people's needs (Arnold 1998, 306). Carter sought to realize this goal through both a series of small structural reorganizations executed with his reorganization authority and a few larger structural reorganizations, which would require congressional action. The most notable successes of the latter effort were the creation of Departments of Energy and Education; the most notable failures were Carter's ill-fated proposals for Departments of Developmental Assistance and Natural Resources.

Confronting the Political Opposition to Reorganization

The Carter administration undertook all four of its cabinet-level reorganization projects fully aware of the intense political opposition they would generate and the few political gains they would produce. Lazarus's and Miles's argument that by packaging reorganization properly, Carter could use it to build significant public support for his presidency was undercut by Carter pollster Pat Cadell's findings that the public had little interest in and understanding of reorganization. Cadell submitted to the White House on November 1, 1977, an analysis of the data gathered from a poll of fifteen hundred American voters between August 31 and September 12, 1977, designed to assess attitudes toward reorganization. Cadell had found that "most Americans [were] only moderately interested in reorganization" and that "those most interested and optimistic about reorganization [were] upper income, better educated Democrats--the classic good government types."(12) Despite Carter's campaign rhetoric about reorganization and his effort in the early days of his presidency to draw the public's attention to the PRP's work, "only half the voters [were] familiar with the re-organization effort," and this group was dominated once again by "better educated, upper income voters and professionals."(13) Cadell concluded that reorganization's appeal was limited to a narrow band of voters who strongly resembled the "kind of people you find in the Carter administration."(14) This finding could not have been encouraging to the White House, which had hoped to use reorganization to expand its electoral base. Cadell's report, however, contained additional bad news for the administration. Even the small, select group of voters who were aware of reorganization did not believe it could have much impact on bureaucratic performance.(15)

If reorganization's potential political benefits were tenuous at best, its political costs were readily apparent. The Carter administration was aware of how bureaucratic, interest group, and congressional obstacles had derailed past reorganization efforts. If any members of the administration needed to be reminded, Stuart Eizenstat circulated a piece by Stanley Salett, a former member of the Kennedy administration, which identified the sources of political opposition to reorganization.(16)

Carter's concern about bureaucratic opposition to his reorganization proposals led him to launch a preemptive strike. In early 1978, Carter toured a number of departments and agencies to speak to civil servants. During these visits, Carter gave federal employees assurances that his reorganization effort "would not cause any Federal employee to be discharged or demoted, or to lose seniority or pay status."(17) This was a bold promise that forced the administration to scramble to ensure that all agencies "undertook a vigorous reassignment program" that would provide all employees affected by reorganization offers of positions at the same pay and grade level.(18) This program deprived the Carter administration of progress on one of the key dimensions of bureaucratic reform: personnel reduction. The PRP urged Carter in late 1978 to revisit this policy and consider permitting reductions in force through reorganization.(19) Yet, despite indications that Carter's promise to reduce personnel only through attrition had done little to soothe the anxieties of civil servants, Carter continued to demand "no-fault personnel actions."(20)

The Carter administration's knowledge of the sources and likely intensity of opposition did not deter it from fashioning an ambitious cabinet-level reorganization plan. This plan resembled Richard Nixon's reorganization proposal in its provisions for superdepartments covering the natural resources and community development areas.(21) Carter, however, signaled to Congress a willingness to compromise that was missing from Nixon's efforts to win support for his superdepartment proposal. Carter's willingness to make concessions to Congress, even concessions that struck at the heart of his proposals, was apparent in negotiations with Congress over the establishment of the Department of Energy and the Department of Education. Carter's capitulation to congressional, bureaucratic, and interest group demands caused him to stop far short of complete consolidation of energy and education functions. Carter mollified a number of powerful interest groups by leaving many energy-related activities out of his proposal for a Department of Energy (Arnold 1998, 317). This concern with forestalling political opposition was also apparent in the PRP's recommendation that the proposed Department of Education be "a narrow department that would involve little more than lifting to cabinet status HEW's education division" (Arnold 1998, 320). The administration's caution in this case, however, produced more congressional opposition than it defused. Senator Abraham Ribicoff responded to the administration's carefully circumscribed proposal with a more comprehensive bill that would have housed within the new Department of Education most of the education-related programs spread across the executive branch. Ribicoff found within the White House an ally for his broader gauged approach: Jimmy Carter. Carter rejected the PRP's recommendation just as his aides were preparing to forward it to Congress. Carter's last-minute decision to support the Ribicoff bill sealed the defeat of the Department of Education in 1978. While the Ribicoffbill passed the Senate, interest group lobbying bottled it up in committee in the House (Arnold 1998, 321).

Carter's support for the Ribicoff proposal would be his last effort to realize a bold and significant reorganization. Carter relaunched his campaign for a Department of Education in 1979 with a much more limited proposal that excluded some education-oriented agencies from the new department. The revised bill won congressional and interest group support for a new department that gave professional education interests access to high-level policy decisions but did little to increase coordination or eliminate overlap and duplication in the administration of educational policy (Arnold 1998, 323-24).

While the narrowly drawn Departments of Energy and Education earned the acquiescence of Congress and interest groups, they did not generate much public excitement. PRP member Peter Szanton argued in a memo to Harrison Wellford on September 7, 1978, that public support for reorganization would not be forthcoming unless the administration proposed structural changes that promised to have a tangible impact on government performance:
 The most important truth about reorganization to this point is that while
 it has been remarkably successful against the criteria we are accustomed to
 use, it has been almost completely unsuccessful in the terms the public
 cares about.... The public perception now ... is that government is
 bloated, intrusive, incompetent and overpaid.... If PRP continues on its
 current course, it will continue to deserve good marks on its own criteria,
 and continue to get swamped by public dissatisfaction with the size, cost
 and performance of the government as a whole. So, if only defensively, we
 must concern ourselves with the larger problem of producing a visibly more
 efficient, more competent, less intrusive government.(22)

Szanton advised that department-led efforts to reform their own structures and procedures offered the best hope for improving service delivery in a manner that would boost sagging public confidence in government.(23) But while the Carter White House did pursue some procedural reforms, it continued to focus most of its attention on structural change. The PRP issued a decision memo to Carter in early 1979 that characterized structural reorganization as the best instrument for improving bureaucratic performance. The memo maintained that the public's increasing demands for better government, as exemplified by "Proposition 13 and its offspring," could be harnessed to give reorganization the impetus it needed to overcome interest group, congressional, and bureaucratic opposition.(24) Moving forward on comprehensive reorganization was important, the memo contended, to counter public perceptions that the administration had failed to deliver on its promise to transform the bureaucracy. Most of Carter's reorganization successes to date were too small and obscure to generate much public interest, while the more visible products of reorganization, the new Department of Energy and the soon-to-be established Department of Education, would actually increase the bureaucracy's size. The authors argued that the administration needed to engineer a "bold, comprehensive, visible reform" that would demonstrate to the public that Carter was still committed to cost savings, personnel reductions, and the elimination of overlap and duplication.(25) Cabinet-level reorganization would underscore the Carter administration's placement of "`management' among its highest priorities."(26)

The PRP's rationale for structural reorganization constituted a clear departure from the "bottom-up" or "problem-driven" approach both it and Carter had advocated earlier. Cabinet-level reorganization's greatest virtue was not that it would address specific problems at the "program level" but that it would provide a "visible," easily comprehensible initiative that would demonstrate to the public Carter's mastery over the federal government.

The Carter White House by this time possessed the raw materials it needed to formulate an ambitious cabinet-level reorganization proposal. The PRP had conducted studies on improving government performance in four areas: natural resources, economic development, trade, and food and nutrition. After surveying a series of options, the PRP recommended a large-scale reorganization that would reconfigure four cabinet departments (Arnold 1998, 324). The major product of this reorganization would be the creation of two superdepartments. The first would be a Department of Natural Resources, which would house the former Department of the Interior; the civil functions of the Army Corps of Engineers; several agencies from the Department of Agriculture, including the Forest Service; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from the Department of Commerce. The second superdepartment would be a Department of Developmental Assistance, which would include the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and developmental credit programs from agriculture and commerce (Arnold 1998, 325). The PRP's decision memo to Carter underscored the administrative gains these changes would achieve in the form of "balanced, farsighted natural resources decisions" and "balanced and coherent growth for communities of all sizes and locations."(27) But equally important was the message that these changes would send to the American public on the eve of an election year: that Carter had "dramatically shaken up the domestic Cabinet, rejuvenated it, and focused it on problems of the 1980s."(28) The PRP concluded that
 we believe this kind of Cabinet major surgery will strike the general
 public as bold, necessarily comprehensive, and future-oriented. While each
 individual element has its merit, it is the package as a whole that will
 excite the public and appear appropriately Presidential. If we expect the
 "government" issue to loom large in 1980, our reorganization posture should
 be this aggressive.(29)

The PRP may have been guilty of overstating the case for cabinet-level reorganization, particularly in light of Cadell's findings about the public's lack of enthusiasm for and optimism about reorganization. The PRP, however, harbored no delusions about the nature of the political opposition that such an ambitious reorganization proposal would generate. In January 1979, Dick Pettigrew and Tom Belford gauged the political opposition to the superdepartments in a memo to Jim McIntyre, John White, and Harrison Wellford. The Department of Developmental Assistance (DDA) promised to create the most problems for the administration because the cornerstone of this new superdepartment, HUD, had a reputation for mismanagement and a narrow urban focus. Pettigrew and Belford argued that the first step in the campaign to build support for the DDA was to refashion "HUD's present image as urban-focused, community development-oriented, regulation-bound, and mismanaged."(30) Frank Raines was more specific about HUD's liabilities in a January 8, 1979, memo to Jim McIntyre:
 The problems facing HUD are immense. The agency is now and will continue to
 be primarily a housing agency. That interest group, the complex problems of
 that industry, and the operation of several million units of subsidized
 housing will dominate the thinking of the agency leadership for at least
 the next decade. The management of the agency is improving but it begins
 from an abysmally low level. The agency's image clearly matches its

Raines suggested an alternative plan to use the Department of Commerce as the cornerstone of a Department of Trade and Economic Development in which the consolidation of economic development options would be directed more toward improving trade, business, and industry than local development.(32) This option received the vocal support of Juanita Kreps, the secretary of commerce, who strongly opposed the transfer of Commerce's economic development programs to the DDA (Arnold 1998, 326). The HUD-based DDA also encountered stiff opposition from an important entity within the White House, the Domestic Policy staff(DPS). Stuart Eizenstat's support for the "Commerce option" elicited a lengthy memo from Harrison Wellford rebutting the DPS's criticisms of the HUD option point by point.(33)

The internal debates over the constitution of the new Department of Natural Resources (DNR) were no less spirited. Interior, like HUD, possessed a reputation that was not altogether helpful in building support for its position as the cornerstone of a new Department of Natural Resources. Interior was not tarnished by charges of mismanagement, but it was viewed by many as sympathetic to "environmentalist/preservationist" interests to an extent that would make resource groups "affected by the Forest Service, NOAA, and water policy transfers" uneasy.(34) The administration's challenge was to persuade all interests involved "that a new DNR, with a national constituency, will best ensure balanced, multiple use management, of our natural resources" by maintaining "a middle of the road posture regarding the philosophical tilt of the new department."(35) The DNR also promised to raise congressional hackles through consolidating all water resource planning in a single agency by "combining the Water Resources Council and the policy, planning, and budgeting functions of the three water development agencies (Bureau of Reclamation, Corps of Engineers, and Soil Conservation Service)."(36) Members of Congress on the Public Works Committee's Authorization and Appropriations Subcommittee would view this move as a threat to valued water projects for their districts.(37) The anticipated political fallout from this proposal was so threatening that the White House staff ultimately decided to exclude it from their final decision memorandum to the president, arguing that
 while the existing organization of the water resources functions is far
 from perfect, any major organizational change in this area will be highly
 controversial and if included in DNR is likely to contribute to the defeat
 of the entire plan.(38)

This final decision memorandum on the DDA and DNR was not a consensus document. The differences among Carter's top staffover the composition of the two departments could not be completely resolved. The result was that Carter was presented with three separate reorganization "packages," followed by a discussion of the pros and cons of each and an account of the disparate positions of the president's top advisers on each option.(39) Among the staffers' few points of agreement was that
 any of the reorganization options will be difficult politically and will be
 hard to move through Congress.... The Department of Natural Resources (DNR)
 and the Department of Development Assistance (DDA) reorganization plans
 will probably face Congressional disapproval if both are proposed this
 session in their most ambitious form.(40)

Carter decided in the face of this disastrous scenario to jettison DDA. Eliminating DDA, however, did not clear the way for enactment of a DNR. The Carter administration had anticipated being able to propose the DNR under the favorable ambit of presidential reorganization authority since it would constitute not the creation of a new department but the renaming of the Interior Department. The Carter White House had received assurances from Representative Jack Brooks, who had already demonstrated his willingness to question the scope of presidential reorganization authority, that it was correct on this point. Key members of the Senate, however, including Abraham Ribicoff and Robert Byrd, "told the president that while they favored the new department they could not accept its creation by plan."(41) The phalanx of interest groups arrayed against the DNR gave the administration little hope that it could navigate the legislative process without the assistance of reorganization authority. It thus allowed the DNR to die silently.(42)


Carter's determination to move ahead on cabinet-level reorganization despite the misgivings of many of his aides about both the value and political feasibility of the project is puzzling. It is clear that key members of the administration believed that comprehensive structural reorganization promised little political and administrative gain at a high cost in the coin of time and energy invested in the formulation and selling of the proposal. Even the plan's strongest supporters conceded that it would do little to streamline the bureaucracy because of Carter's promise that reorganization would not require personnel reductions, realize cost savings, or generate noticeable improvements in administrative efficiency, and the political opposition it would provoke would be close to insuperable.(43) Reorganization's limited public appeal, as documented in Cadell's study, only made it even more sensible to follow Si Lazarus's recommendation to seek improved government performance through less conspicuous procedural changes and internal reorganizations within the departments and agencies.(44)

The Carter administration's reorganization effort becomes less puzzling if it is understood as the product of a "garbage can" decision-making process in which Carter and his aides tied problems to an appealing solution. This perspective makes understandable the Carter White House's hand-wringing over setting appropriate goals for structural reorganization long after it had decided to reorganize. This casting about for problems to attach to the structural solution was at sharp odds with the administration's public posture that it would choose solutions to address the problems it unearthed in the executive branch. But understanding the Carter administration's reform effort as "solution driven" makes explicable this inverted sequence of steps. This interpretation also clarifies why many Carter aides sought to produce "visible" evidence of bureaucratic change. While some members of the administration advocated a series of procedural and internal agency reforms that promised administrative improvements that would generate little public attention, most administration members supported cabinet-level reorganization as a way to demonstrate to the public that Carter was determined to fulfill his promise to reform the bureaucracy. Implementing the structural "solution" became in the end more important than addressing specific administrative problems.

Understanding the Carter reorganization effort as "solution driven" rather than "problem driven" also helps explain why the administration retreated so readily before political opposition to its most important reorganization initiatives. Carter's strong statements that reorganization would constitute one of the most important elements of his domestic policy agenda during his first term were belied by his reticence to fight for fully integrated Departments of Energy and Education and his failure to support his superdepartment initiatives when they were attacked by Congress and interest groups. Carter even failed to join the battle with Congress over the DDA and DNR: jettisoning the former because of anticipated political opposition and dropping the latter after losing a skirmish over the parameters of his reorganization authority. A president primarily concerned with solving administrative problems would not have been as willing to dilute his proposals for the Departments of Energy and Education and to withdraw his superdepartment initiatives. Such trimming and retreating were, however, consistent with designs to reap the symbolic benefits offered by structural reform. The Carter administration could be satisfied with producing some visible changes in the executive branch that it believed would demonstrate to the public its sincerity about improving government performance.

Jimmy Carter's reorganization project affirmed rather than repudiated the past. The quintessential "insurgent" president who had called for "a new politics ... that would dispense with the tired bickering of the old parties, transcend special interest pressures, and generally authorize smart people to generate public policies in the national interest" had succumbed to the allure of both old ideas and the old politics when constructing and marketing his reorganization proposal (Skowronek 1993, 364).

Stephen Skowronek is undoubtedly right to emphasize that Carter's placement in political time limited his ability to repudiate the past with a "politics of reconstruction." But this article has demonstrated that Carter's adoption of structural reform was also caused by the workings of the "garbage can" decision-making process typical of political institutions. The appeal of a past solution searching for a problem overwhelmed Carter and his aides' sincere intention to pursue a novel approach to reorganization.

A less-determined president might never have challenged past practices so audaciously. But even this most determined of presidents could not overcome the institutional pressures pushing him to affirm the past (see Skowronek 1993, 20-21).(45)

(1.) Carter's bitterness seems to have outlasted his presidency. Fred Greenstein characterizes a visit Carter made in January 1981 to Greenstein's course on the presidency as "contentious." When one of Greenstein's students asked Carter "what he had found most and least rewarding about being president," Carter "replied by excoriating the Democratic party for not rallying behind his policies, mentioning nothing positive about his White House experience" (Greenstein 2000, 7).

Edmund Morris also found Carter to be unforgiving of his opponents. Mort'is recounts a meeting at Princeton University with Carter in which the former president sought advice from a number of presidential scholars about writing his memoirs. When Morris suggested that Carter begin his book with a description of his walk down Pennsylvania Avenue with Rosalynn and Amy during his inaugural parade, Carter interjected, "No, no, Ah'm gonna start with the moment Ah triumphed over Scoop Jackson in the Florida primary." Morris remembers that Carter's "eyes flashed such blue flame that I was reminded of my juvenile science fiction comics, with blue flames shooting out of ray guns. I thought to myself, `This guy is a killer'" (Morris 1999, 121).

(2.) Memorandum from Richard A. Pettigrew to Hamilton Jordan, March 3, 1977, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Hamilton Jordan Papers, Box 52, "Reorganization (IF 01A 646)," pp. 1-3.

(3.) Memorandum from Harrison Wellford and John Harmon to Jimmy Carter, Re: "Reorganization Plan Authority Legislation--Timetable, Objectives and Provisions," December 7, 1976, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Stuart Eizenstat Papers, Box 270, "Reorganization (F01A 28(3))."

(4.) Ibid., 2.

(5.) Ibid., 2.

(6.) Ibid., 10-11.

(7.) Memorandum from Harrison Wellford to Greg Schneiders, November 23, 1977, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Gerald Rafshoon Papers, Box 68, "Airlie House: November 8 and 9/77 (F(30))."

(8.) Memorandum from Keith M. Miles to Peter Szanton, Re: "The Carter Reorganization: Its Goals, Rationale, and Distinguishing Characteristics," Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, "Government Reform, Neustadt," Box 79, "Reorganization of Government 12/1/77-2/6/80," 2.

(9.) Memorandum from Si Lazarus to Smart Eizenstat, David Rubenstein, and Bert Carp, Re: "Reorganization Planning," November 11, 1977, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, "Government Reform, Neustadt," Box 79, "Reorganization of Government (6/77-1/28/77)."

(10.) Ibid., 5.

(11.) Memorandum from Keith Miles to Peter Szanton, November 22, 1977.

(12.) Memorandum from Pat Cadell to All Concerned, Re: "Government Reorganization," James McIntyre Papers, Box 4, "Cambridge Survey Research--`Government Reorganization,' 11/1/77," 1.

(13.) Ibid., 4.

(14.) Memorandum from Pat Cadell to All Concerned, Re: "Government Reorganization," 48.

(15.) Ibid., 6.

(16.) Stanley Salett, "Public Bankruptcy: Putting Muscle into Reorganization," March 26, 1977, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Stuart Eizenstat Papers, Box 270, "Reorganization" (F01A 28)."

(17.) Memorandum for Heads of Departments and Agencies, Re: "Personnel Impact of Reorganization Actions," Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Gerald Rafshoon Papers, Box 74, "President's Remarks Re: Reorganization (F 395)."

(18.) Ibid., 2.

(19.) "Proposed Reorganization Agenda," Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Gerald Rafshoon Papers, Box 58, "Reorganization (01A 6681)," 5.

(20.) Memorandum for Heads of Departments and Agencies, Re: "Personnel Impact of Reorganization Actions."

(21.) Nixon sought the creation of four superdepartments: a Department of Natural Resources, a Department of Community Development, a Department of Economic Affairs, and a Department of Human Resources.

(22.) Memorandum from Peter Szanton to Harrison Wellford, Re: "Reorganization at Half-Time--Some Proposals," September 7, 1978, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Gerald Rafshoon Papers, "Reorganization (0A 6681)," 1-2.

(23.) Ibid., 4.

(24.) "Proposed Reorganization Agenda-1979-1980," 1.

(25.) Ibid., 4-5.

(26.) Ibid., 5.

(27.) Ibid., 13.

(28.) Ibid., 13.

(29.) Ibid., 14.

(30.) Memorandum from Dick Pettigrew and Tom Belford to Jim McIntyre, John White, and Harrison Wellford, Re: "Cabinet Reorganization-Political Assessment," January 5, 1979, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Jim McIntyre Papers, Box 9, "President's Reorganization Project 1/5/79-1/13/79," 1.

(31.) Memorandum from Frank Raines to Jim McIntyre, Re: "OMB Recommendation on Economic Development Reorganization," January 8, 1979, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Jim McIntyre Papers, Box 9, "President's Reorganization Project 1/5/79-1/13/79," 4.

(32.) Ibid., 2.

(33.) Memorandum from Harrison Wellford to Jim McIntyre, Re: "Stu's Views of DDA," February 12, 1979, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Jim McIntyre Papers, Box 12, "Reorganization Proposals 1979 1/16/79-2/13/79."

(34.) Memorandum from Dick Pettigrew and Tom Belford to Jim McIntyre, John White, and Harrison Wellford, Re: "Cabinet Reorganization-Political Assessment," January 5, 1979, 5.

(35.) Ibid., 5.

(36.) Memorandum from Jim McIntyre to Jimmy Carter, Re: "Executive Summary: Reorganization Proposals for 1979," January 17, 1979, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Jim McIntyre Papers, Box 12, "Reorganization Proposals 1979 1/16/79-2/13/79," 3.

(37.) Memorandum from Harrison Wellford and Gary Fontana to Jim McIntyre, Re: "Political Assessment of Major Reorganization Options," January 6, 1979, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Jim McIntyre Papers, Box 9, "President's Reorganization Project 1/5/79-1/13/79," 2.

(38.) Memorandum from Jim McIntyre, Stuart Eizenstat, Tim Kraft, Dick Moe, Frank Moore, Dick Pettigrew, Jody Powell, Jack Watson, Anne Wexler, and Jerry Rafshoon to Jimmy Carter, Re: "Development Assistance and Natural Resources Reorganization," Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Jim McIntyre Papers, Box 12, "Reorganization Proposals 1979 1/16/79-2/13/79," 3.

(39.) Ibid.

(40.) Ibid., 2.

(41.) Ibid., 327.

(42.) Ibid., 327.

(43.) "Proposed Reorganization Agenda- 1979-1980," 2-3.

(44.) Memorandum from Si Lazarus to Stuart Eizenstat, David Rubenstein, and Bert Carp, Re: "Reorganization Planning," Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Government Reform, Neustadt, Box 79, "Reorganization of Government 6/77-1/28/78."

(45.) Stephen Skowronek describes the tensions sewn into the fabric of the modern presidency because of its "order-shattering," "order-affirming," and "order-creating" impulses. Skowronek argues that only presidents at the beginning of a regime sequence have the opportunity to realize the "order-shattering" and "order-creating" potential of the presidency. Presidents, such as Carter, who arrive at the end of a regime sequence are limited to affirming rather than repudiating the past. See Skowronek (1993, 20-21).


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Landy, Mark, and Sidney M. Milkis. 2000. Presidential greatness. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Lowi, Theodore. 1985. The personal president: Power invested, promise unfulfilled. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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Morris, Edmund. 1999. Force of nature. In Power and the Presidency, edited by Robert A. Wilson. New York: Public Affairs.

Skowronek, Stephen. 1993. The politics that presidents make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Ronald P. Seyb is associate professor of government at Skidmore College. He has published articles on presidential management of the executive branch in the Journal of Policy History and Presidential Studies Quarterly.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wish to thank the staff at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library for their assistance with the research for this article.
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Date:Mar 1, 2001
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