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The Political Ideologies of Cabinet Officials

- May 16, 2011

In this earlier post, I posted the comment of a Monkey Cage reader, who suggested that political science has not devoted enough attention to the executive function of the president, and especially presidential appointees:

bq. At least as importantly, NOMINATE as an assessment of a President continues the common fixation on the President as a legislative actor and thus obscures the importance of their appointments, regulations and foreign policy…

Some interesting new research speaks to the ideological of presidential appointees.  I’ll have two posts about this.  The first concerns cabinet secretaries.

In this forthcoming paper (ungated), Anthony Bertelli and Christian Grose examined thousands of pages of congressional testimony by cabinet secretaries to identify their positions on key pieces of legislation.  Having done so, they can then calculate the ideological “ideal points” of each secretary, much as the NOMINATE approach does for members of Congress who actually vote on legislation. Bertelli and Grose generate ideal points for for 46 cabinet members during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.  (UPDATE: The total time period examined is 1991-2004.) Here is one graph, depicting the ideal points of the secretaries, presidents, and key Senate and House members:

Obviously, Clinton (in the graph for the 103rd Congress) is well to the left of Bush (in the graph of the 107th Congress).  Moreover, so are many of Clinton’s cabinet secretaries.  But note the variation as well: presidents do not appoint ideological clones.

Some other interesting findings:

* There is more ideological diversity in cabinet appointees under unified government (1991-2004 1994-95, part of 2001, 2003-2004) than divided government (2005-2008 1991-92, 1995-2000, part of 2001-2 ).

* The strongest predictor of the ideal point of a cabinet appointee is not the ideal point of the president.  It is the ideal point of the median voter in the House, followed by the ideal point of the median Senator.

* Ideological similarity to members of Congress matters.  The closer a cabinet appointee is to the House or Senate median, the larger the discretionary budget authority that Congress gives to that cabinet department.

Finally, below I will paste the big table with the estimated ideal points and confidence intervals for all of the cabinet secretaries in their data.  Click for a larger view.  Much more detail on the methodology and analysis is in the paper.  Recommended.