"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works," Barack Obama said during his Inaugural Address.
A government that works seems like an obvious goal. But conservatives in the Bush administration and their ideological predecessors in the Reagan administration made an art out of using government against government, especially in sub-Cabinet positions that fly below most observers' radar. Though conservatives have never come close to actually shrinking the federal bureaucracy, they have succeeded in preventing government from doing its job -- a nice judo trick.
Voters repudiated that philosophy on Election Day. With a mandate to fix government, Obama's new appointees have the opportunity to try some jujitsu of their own by using federal offices where scandals were hatched, science was ignored, and the law was shattered to promote sound public policy. But making government work is only half the mission. The next step, implementing a truly liberal public-policy agenda, demands vision and a willingness to use the full potential of the government.
As Obama takes office, the heads of the biggest executive-branch departments have, understandably, received the bulk of the media coverage. But Cabinet secretaries cannot personally oversee their entire department and are often occupied with major agenda items. At lower rungs on the ladder, the right appointee has more control -- and thus more ability to create real change. When the president and his Cabinet put forth major initiatives, these officials are the ones who will actually execute them, making decisions along the way that determine whether the policies will succeed or fail.
Here are five offices to watch as Obama's administration attempts to realize its agenda.
OFFICE OF INFORMATION AND REGULATORY AFFAIRS
MANDATE: Act as a clearinghouse for all federal regulations, from environmental rules to work-safety guidelines, in an effort to help centralize the complex regulatory process.
THE CONSERVATIVE APPROACH: Stop regulation. The Reagan administration used OIRA as a veto point -- reviewing, and rejecting, thousands of regulations proposed by federal agencies each year. The office blocked regulations that could have provided environmental protections, moderated health risks in food and medicine, and kept employees safe at work. George W. Bush's first appointment as OIRA director was John Graham, who had previously led an AT&T Wireless-funded study that, predictably, found that driving while using a cell phone isn't dangerous. In his first year at OIRA, Graham rejected more regulations than were refused during the entire Clinton administration.
THE LIBERAL APPROACH: Create a regulatory regime for the modern economy. Obama has appointed well-known Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein to head the office, indicating that the new administration has bold plans for it. Sunstein is known as a pragmatic thinker, and his credentials have been questioned by some progressives who see his approach to regulatory regimes as too similar to that of the last administration's. But Sunstein has reiterated his commitment to strong regulation, and given that many of the new president's policy goals won't be achieved without effective rule-making, there is good reason to believe he will be a force for improvement within OIRA. Indeed, though Sunstein favors the cost-benefit approach to regulations used by Graham, he will likely factor in the costs like climate change and income inequality that never crossed conservatives' minds.
OFFICE OF LEGAL COUNSEL
MANDATE: Provide "authoritative legal advice" to the entire executive branch, especially in the case of a disagreement between different departments.
THE CONSERVATIVE APPROACH: Pave the way for presidential acts, unfettered by traditional checks and balances. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the OLC's chief, Jay Bybee and his deputy, John Yoo, used the "unitary executive" theory to frame legal opinions justifying torture, warrantless surveillance of American citizens, and other radical expansions of presidential power. The next head of the OLC, Jack Goldsmith, resigned after attempts to change the administration's policy led to conflict with other Bush officials.
THE LIBERAL APPROACH: Cancel the opinions providing legal cover for unlawful and immoral actions, and review the rest. This office can play a large role in ensuring a careful balance between America's ideals and its security, so that neither one undermines the other. The new assistant attorney general in charge of the OLC is Dawn Johnsen, a former law professor who recently published a law-review article outlining specific ways to undo the controversial legal gambits that characterized the OLC during the Bush years and to return proper legal constraints to the executive. The office has already played a part in rolling back the past administration's torture and rendition policies with executive orders issued in the first week of the Obama presidency. The next step is to review and declassify other secret opinions in order to provide more government transparency.
FEDERAL STUDENT AID OFFICE
MANDATE: Administer the various federal student-loan programs, including Pell grants, Stafford loans, PLUS loans, and Federal Work Study, among others.
THE CONSERVATIVE APPROACH: Provide corporate welfare, and cut student assistance. Conservative overreliance on the private sector led this office to favor corporations over students. The Bush administration also failed to increase the maximum Pell Grant, even though its real value has been diminishing for years. In addition, it allowed student-loan interest rates to rise, and it cut funds for program management. For the first six years of the Bush administration, the office funneled millions of dollars in unnecessary subsidies to private lenders. (The office had the power to stop these ballooning payments but chose not to for years.) The FSA also failed to uncover illegal payments from student lenders to college officials. Numerous FSA employees formerly worked in the private student-lending industry; one official, Matteo Fontana, owned $100,000 worth of stock in a corporation the office supervised and made several rulings in favor of private financial-aid companies.
THE LIBERAL APPROACH: Put students first. The FSA could use its power to simplify the confusing student-loan programs and advocate for more use of the Federal Direct Loan Program, which cuts out private-lender middlemen to provide loans directly to students. This could save the government millions -- while at the same time increasing access to higher education. Officials should also strictly enforce lending rules and provide rigorous oversight. Obama has already taken a step in this direction. With his first series of executive orders, he ended some revolving-door hiring practices, which means the FSA is now likely to employ fewer former banking-industry veterans.
OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH ADMINISTRATION
MANDATE: Prevent work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths.
THE CONSERVATIVE APPROACH: Let corporations make their own rules. The Bush administration's last OSHA chief, Edwin Foulke, had previously worked at a union-busting law firm. Foulke focused on a "voluntary compliance strategy," which meant OSHA essentially allowed businesses to police themselves. The administration also underfunded the agency. Due to budget cuts and fewer employees, this year OSHA has set a goal of 37,700 workplace inspections -- a fraction of the nearly 9 million establishments overseen by the department. Meanwhile, the Office of Labor Management Standards, which monitors unions' compliance with federal rules, grew 90 percent under Bush. The administration also imposed only one major safety rule and issued only one health standard -- because a federal court required it.
THE LIBERAL APPROACH: Increase enforcement and raise safety standards. While encouraging voluntary safety programs is important, OSHA needs to target high-risk industries for inspection. Identifying low-wage sectors, like the garment industry, where abuse of minimum-wage and overtime laws is frequent will allow enforcement actions to be more effective. Edward Montgomery, a former Department of Labor official, recommends performing several "high-impact enforcement actions" within the first year of the new administration to send a sector-wide message that OSHA will be using its authority to protect workers. Improving record-keeping to get a better grip on the number of actual workplace injuries is another important step after allegations that the previous administration's methods did not reflect the actual rate of injury, leading to poor worker-safety policies across the government.
ADMINISTRATION FOR CHILDREN AND FAMILIES
MANDATE: Manage welfare programs and national health initiatives.
THE CONSERVATIVE APPROACH: Don't worry about economic security, focus on non-empirical social policy. Under the Bush administration, budgets remained stagnant -- that is, they declined in real terms -- hurting both the access to and quality of the ACF's programs. Now, as the recession increases the demand for social services, both the ACF and the states (which often shoulder half the funding burden) are overstretched. Wade Horn, who was the assistant secretary for Children and Families for most of the previous administration, mainly worked on social programs that pushed the conservative agenda, such as the Healthy Marriage Initiative and abstinence-only sex education, despite numerous studies demonstrating their ineffectiveness.
THE LIBERAL APPROACH: Redirect funds to help struggling families, and use the ACF as a laboratory for smart new anti- poverty programs. Now more than ever, the community that the ACF serves will be in need; even before the financial crisis, 39 percent of the nation's children were part of low-income families. Because programs that assist children and families are scattered across the bureaucracy from Labor to Agriculture, experts suggest the ACF would be a natural home for an integrated strategy or task force to meet family needs. The ACF can play a role in researching more effective assistance programs to respond to the recession. The agency should also eliminate funding for abstinence-only education and instead fund comprehensive sex-ed programs that work. And rather than focus on marriage initiatives that don't pan out, it should look at an array of promising fatherhood programs that promote responsible family participation.