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The President Needs Help: Happy Birthday, Brownlow Report!

- January 10, 2012

Yes, I know today is devoted to New Hampshire (live free or die…), but the departure of William Daley as White House chief of staff gives me  the excuse to trumpet the 75th anniversary of the Brownlow Committee report to President Franklin Roosevelt — released this week in 1937.  After all, without the Brownlow report, there would be no staff to be chief of.

Doubtless that overstates. But the January 1937 report of the President’s Committee on Administrative Management, made up of public administration mandarins Louis Brownlow, Luther Gulick, and Charlies Merriam (all closely supervised by FDR), served as the basis of the Reorganization Act of 1939 and Executive Order 8248 that same year, creating the Executive Office of the President. The EOP was to house the new White House Office and, importantly, the Bureau of the Budget (today’s Office of Management and Budget, then part of the Treasury), but its population grew quickly. In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower appointed the first White House chief of staff with that title (former NH governor Sherman Adams).

The point of the White House staff, as the Brownlow report saw it, was simple: “The President needs help.”

That help was to be provided by a new cadre of “not more than six administrative assistants,” as well as by the institutional resources of the budget bureau.  Six was not a random number (see Matt Dickinson’s discussion of the report in his 1997 book Bitter Harvest) — added to a handful of secretaries and others, it was as many as the president could personally supervise. In that sense, a chief of staff was antithetical to the Brownlow conception. Nor was the the distinction between the personal staff in the White House proper and the institutional, mostly career, staff in the rest of the EOP a throwaway line. The role of the institutional staff was to protect the presidency as an office and entity, rather than focusing on the political standing of whomever was president at the time.

Even the idea of six new staff for the president outraged many in Congress. Yet as presidents’ managerial responsibilities grew, FDR’s successors found themselves with an NSC, a congressional relations staff, a CEA, a communications staff, a Domestic Council, etc., etc.  Jimmy Carter was the last president to attempt to manage the White House without a designated chief of staff.  These days one can count not six but perhaps 1500(!) people who do substantive work “directly” for the president. And while the distinction between the personal and institutional staffs has not been completely lost, presidents’ drive for executive branch responsiveness has placed heavy pressure on neutral competence.  If nothing else the rise of the budget as the main weapon of contemporary partisanship (what Ken Shepsle called “the fiscalization of politics”) has necessarily politicized budget management. The fact that three successive presidents have now drawn chiefs of staff from the OMB directorship underlines this point.

It is worth adding the report’s famous description of the duties of White House staffers. They were only to conduct information to the president from across the government, and to conduct presidential decisions back to the administration. “These aides would have no power to make decisions or issue instructions in their own right. They would not be interposed between the President and the heads of his departments. They would not be assistant presidents in any sense,” the committee members wrote. Indeed, “….Their effectiveness in assisting the President will, we think, be directly proportional to their ability to discharge their functions with restraint.”

In one of the most famous phrases of the report, this meant that each aide “should be possessed of high competence, great physical vigor, and a passion for anonymity.”

Clearly much has changed – though even at the time there was skepticism. When FDR noted the job description above at his meeting with congressional leaders on January 10, 1937 – “I need executive assistants with ‘a passion for anonymity’ to be my legs” — one senator shot back “Try and find them!”

The report’s conclusion, however, still rings true. As Brownlow, Gulick, and Merriam wrote 75 years ago, “The times demand better government organization, staffed with more competent public servants, more free to do their best, and coordinated by an Executive accountable to the Congress, and fully equipped with modern tools of management.”  All of those things would be awfully nice to see in 2012. Happy Birthday, Brownlow Report…