Presidential Advisory Commissions, by Thomas R. Wolanin
Presidential Advisory Commissions.
by Thomas R. Wolanin.
University of Wisconsin Press. 298 pp. $17.50.
What is it about the para-governmental device known as the presidential advisory commission that so endears it to modern Presidents? Apart from their allure for the chief executive, are these bodies of any use to the nation?
Thomas R. Wolanin set out to answer such queries by examining every commission from Harry Truman’s arrival in the Oval Office through Richard Nixon’s first term. Although he employs a strict and elaborate definition—thereby omitting numerous panels and task forces indistinguishable to the lay man from those he includes—it is remarkable how many there have been: between the President’s Committee on Integration of the Medical Services of the Government (1945) and the Presidential Study Commission on International Radio Broadcasting (1972), 99 such groups in all were appointed. Truman sired 17, Eisenhower 9, Kennedy 12, Johnson 28, and Nixon 33. Ford, it appears, is doing his best to maintain the pace.
In the late 1960’s, with the spread of public disenchantment with the Presidency, a skeptical view began to be voiced about these ever-proliferating advisory commissions and the motives of Presidents who create them. Elizabeth Drew once delineated eight such motives: “To obtain the blessing of distinguished men for something you want to do anyway; . . . To postpone action, yet be justified in insisting that you are at work on the problem. . . . To act as a lightning rod, drawing political heat away from the White House. . . . To conduct an extensive study of something you do need to know more about before you act, in case you do. . . . To investigate, lay to rest rumors, and convince the public of the validity of one particular set of facts. . . . To educate the commissioners, or get them aboard on something you want to do. . . . Because you cannot think of anything else to do. . . . To change the hearts and minds of men.” (“On Giving Oneself a Hotfoot,” Atlantic, May 1968.)
At the time Miss Drew wrote, the Kerner Commission on civil disorders had just reported; the other two controversial “crisis commissions” of recent years—the (Milton) Eisenhower panel on the causes and prevention of violence, and the Scranton task force on campus unrest—had yet to be named. In the opinion of many, these three bodies administered the final blow to whatever still breathed of commission credibility. Before their time, however frivolous many commissions may have appeared, and however self-serving the President’s reasons for naming them, little apparent harm was done. The three crisis panels, however, demonstrated that a presidential advisory commission was not invariably a benign or neutral force. It could be actively injurious—magnifying problems, exacerbating tensions, and misplacing responsibility. Such a commission, one member of the Scranton group later wrote, “tends to function in a collective state of alarm, induced by its focus on pathology. . . . ‘Crisis,’ in the perception of the commission, comes to be accepted as the reason for being.” (Martha Derthick, “On Commissionship—Presidential Variety,” Public Policy, Fall 1971.)
Not surprisingly, the reports of these commissions harped on the severity of the crisis, traced its existence to fundamental defects in the society generally and in federal policies especially, and prescribed injections of moral leadership (by the President), large doses of tax dollars, and a program of national soul-searching as the proper treatments for the worsening malady. This was set forth in apocalyptic language aimed at the punchy headline and anguished editorial, an effect further dramatized in all three cases by the frigid reception accorded the reports when they reached the White House.
This dismal record, however, has not restrained succeeding Presidents from continuing to appoint panels, task forces, and study groups of every description, nor has it kept many distinguished citizens from agreeing to serve on them, but the conventional wisdom about such bodies has been shifting from amused doubt to bitter disbelief. It is against such a darkening backdrop that Wolanin’s revisionist interpretations are illuminating, if not altogether satisfying.
The extensive research summarized in his carefully documented study points to the conclusion that the three crisis panels were aberrations that have given the presidential advisory commission a largely undeserved bad name. The author contends that in fact most commissions between 1945 and 1972 came into being because the “President wants to act but is not sure how”; that they went about their business with independence, integrity, and high standards; and that they produced constructive and influential reports. Notwithstanding the bureaucratic limbo to which the Kerner, Eisenhower, and Scranton recommendations were consigned, most such documents “are not routinely ignored or buried by Presidents.” To the contrary, “their recommendations are very often a substantial element in proposed or actually accomplished changes in federal policy.” The evidence indicates that 80 per cent of the commission reports elicited a favorable response from the President, and two-thirds received “some substantial implementation” of their recommendations.
Causation is unprovable, but the circumstantial evidence in particular instances is compelling. The President’s Committee on Foreign Aid (1947) was followed by the Marshall Plan. The President’s Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program (1954) led toward the Interstate Highway system. The President’s Advisory Council on Executive Organization (1969) charted alterations in the Executive Office of the President with lasting consequences. And, of course, the First Hoover Commission, which did not qualify for inclusion in this study, had a profound impact on the organization of the entire executive branch of the federal government. Dozens of other commission recommendations surfaced in messages to Congress, new legislation, and administrative action.
The overall record, then, is far from unimpressive, provided one is not too fussy about whether what happened would have happened anyway, and assuming one is willing to overlook a few outright failures, some dubious ideas, and a number of disagreeable ex-cathedra pronouncements.
Not every topic lends itself to a commission, in Wolanin’s view. Wrenching crises of the national spirit (e.g., the assassination of President Kennedy) and large sudden manifestations of problems with deep-seated causes and no ready remedy (urban riots, campus turmoil) are not the sort of thing commissions handle well, hence appointing one may aggravate or prolong the problem, tarnish the Presidency, and erode the prestige that is a principal asset of advisory panels. “Commissions are best used,” Wolanin judges, “in situations where a President wants to do something about the problem and at the same time can do something about it.”
But numerous issues satisfy those conditions. When, for example, the issue impinges directly on the self-interest of federal agencies and employees, it makes sense to ask advice from thoughtful outsiders rather than relying on the civil service; thus, we have had commissions on government pay scales, segregation in the armed forces, the adequacy of veterans’ hospitals, and the effectiveness of foreign-aid programs. Other commissions have been entrusted with highly technical matters that beg for expertise: federal statistics, highway safety, budget concepts, and state workmen’s compensation laws.
Many commissions have a somewhat different genesis, however, more visibly political yet perhaps not inappropriately so. Faced with a complex and disputed issue such as pornography, population growth and family planning, or widening drug abuse, a President understandably wants advice, and the nation may benefit from having the problem considered in an orderly, thoughtful, public manner by a group of respected citizens with diverse viewpoints. There is a fine line to be drawn between an issue that has ripened in such a way that a commission can coax the society toward workable consensus, and an issue so vague or violently contentious that a commission has little hope of doing more good than ill, but this just means that a President must act with discretion, not that advisory groups should be ended altogether.
Still another occasion—judging from Wolanin’s list, perhaps the most common—for appointing an advisory panel arises when an interest group is pushing the White House to do more for it and the President has no stomach for the political and fiscal costs of either acceding or refusing. He responds with a prestigious board to look into the matter further. Thus there have been innumerable commissions on higher education, medical care, the problems of the handicapped and retarded, veterans’ pensions, housing, and women’s rights, not to mention urban, suburban, and rural problems.
The tactical worth of naming a commission in such circumstances ought not to be discounted. The President’s arsenal of possible responses is none too large. A commission is less of a drain on the Treasury than a bold new program. It requires no assent from Congress and is therefore speedy, flexible, and, at least initially, within the control of the White House. It is more convincing, even to a jaded public, than a mere speech, and more reassuring than a task force of White House aides. Most people deem it an honor to be asked to serve on such a panel, and do so with diligence and good will. Moreover, Wolanin’s data indicate that some change in federal policy is more likely than not to follow in its wake.
The institution of the presidential advisory commission shows no signs of disappearing, nor would decreeing an end to it curb the tendency to find in every problem an excuse for a new federal program. In the final analysis, it is elected officials who must appraise the merits of what commissions urge them to do, and denying them that source of advice would not likely make their eventual decisions any wiser.
If commissions are here to stay, anyone wanting to know a great deal about them would do well to consult this book, which is a solid piece of scholarship, lacking only in two respects. I wish the author had recognized that the “crisis commissions” may have done more lasting harm than simply scarring the reputation of advisory panels. Educating the public scarcely deserves plaudits when the lessons are ill-conceived and the pedagogy divisive. And I wish he were willing to take some of the other commissions in his sample a shade less solemnly, for the enduring appeal of the conventional wisdom that he challenges stems in part from its recognition that at least a few of these 99 groups are just plain ridiculous.