President Obama’s announcement Friday that he was “elevating the Small
Business Administration to a Cabinet-level agency” was a largely symbolic
gesture, government scholars say.
“The president has the ability to designate his Cabinet and the SBA will be
now part of his Cabinet,” Federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients
reiterated during the White House press briefing, after Obama’s remarks.
There is a distinction to be made, however, between the president inviting
the head of an agency to his Cabinet, as Obama will do with SBA Administrator
Karen Mills, and elevating the entire agency to “Cabinet-level status,”
according to Paul Light, Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at New
Light described Cabinet-level status as “a formal designation that only
Congress can make by giving the individual and the agency a particular level in
the executive pay structure.” He explained that Mills’ future attendance at
Cabinet meetings is purely symbolic and will in no way affect her pay grade
unless Congress passes additional legislation.
“He’s basically saying, ‘I’m going to call this person a BFF . . . and I’m
going to invite this person to our clubhouse for our quarterly Cabinet
meetings,’ ” Light said, comparing the process to the ceremonial act of
Don Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, also
sees the act as mostly symbolic.
“Whether an agency is Cabinet rank or not, in terms of getting the job done,
doesn’t really matter a whole lot,” Kettl said. “It has much more to do with
SBA has been on and off the presidential guest list for nearly two decades.
President Clinton first extended an invitation to the agency head to join his
Cabinet in 1994, when, according to Light, he also misused the legislative term
“elevate.” President Bush rescinded the Cabinet invitation after he took
In 1988, Congress elevated the Veteran Affairs Department to Cabinet-level
status. At the time, President George H.W. Bush remarked, “There is only one
place for the veterans of America: in the Cabinet room, at the table with the
president of the United States of America.”
VA’s promotion may have been a mixed blessing: “They got the name change,
they got the accoutrements of Cabinet status, the limousine,” Light said. But
the department couldn’t get additional employees or funding for new signs,
thanks to provisions in the elevation legislation that prohibited such
Light said in the grand scheme of things, federal agencies are “probably
better off” not receiving Cabinet-level status. “That table’s not very important
anymore — we don’t have Cabinet government as presidents once imagined,” he
SBA’s seat at the table is likely temporary. The president’s full
reorganization plan, which must be approved by Congress, would roll SBA and five
other trade-related entities into one, still-unnamed agency.
– by Andrew Lapin – Government Executive – January 13, 2012 at http://www.govexec.com/story_page.cfm?articleid=49775&dcn=e_gvet