Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Comparative cabinetmaking

Far be it from me to object to calls for efficiency in government. But while the Jerusalem Post's editorialists are on the mark regarding Israel's bloated cabinet, their comparison with the American administration is both meaningless and shockingly ill-informed.

The offending paragraph:

Sharon is a known Bush administration fan. It would be only fitting for him to note how streamlined the Washington cabinet is, though charged with running a far larger country. Health, Education and Welfare, for instance, are compacted within one framework, while here these provide separate latifundia for three ministers with their respective bureaucracies.

Streamlined? The Washington cabinet? Excuse me?

To start with the obvious: The Department of Health, Education and Welfare was abolished by President Carter in 1979,, splitting it into the Department of Education, and the Department of Health and Human Services. How long has it been since the Post editors made aliyah?

Next: Anyone want to guess how large Bush's cabinet is? Including the president, there are 22 cabinet-rank officials, not including the newly created intelligence overlord. Admittedly fewer than Sharon's 28, but hardly a paragon of bureaucratic efficiency. Bush's elite team includes such vital players as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Really, though, this comparison is irrelevant. Unlike the United States, the State of Israel does not have a federal structure. Israel's government is responsible for all the functions of both the U.S. federal and state governments. Everything from foreign affairs and national defense to small claims courts, drivers' licensing and zoning are functions of the same government. Israel also has a national health care system and state-sponsored religious services. Relative to its size, Israel's government is much larger than America's.

If anything, Bush's cabinet is more bloated, as it includes many members whose jobs should never have been federal responsibilities in the first place. Constitutionally, the federal government should not be involved in education, health, labor relations, agriculture or housing policy, to name a few. These are all functions of the states, which are more than capable of handling them.

You want to see cabinet bloat? Take a state with about the same area and population as Israel: Maryland. Maryland's cabinet - with no responsibility for defense or foreign affairs - has 24 members. They include the Secretary of Disabilities, the Secretary of Juvenile Services, the Secretary of Human Resources and the Secretary of Higher Education, and the state's own Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Add to this "cabinet attendees" such as the Attorney General, the State Comptroller and the State Treasurer, and Maryland's cabinet is easily as large as Israel's, but with fewer responsibilities.

Finally, it should go without saying that Israel's cabinet and America's cabinet serve different constitutional functions. Israel's cabinet is its governing body; the government includes a coalition of political parties and makes decisions by majority vote.

Constitutionally, the U.S. cabinet has no official function whatsoever. The president is not first among equals, like a prime minister; he is the one and only. He sets policies in consultation with his cabinet members, and expects them to implement his decisions. No American president has to negotiate with political allies over cabinet appointments, or risk being toppled by them.

Israel does need to streamline its government. But comparisons with the United States are misleading and unhelpful.

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