What is a White House policy council and what does it do?

  • The President needs someone physically close to him whom he trusts to answer policy questions as they arise.
  • When he has to make a policy decision someone has to get him all the information he needs to make a good decision, and he needs someone to sift through and mediate the oft-conflicting views of his advisors. This is an honest broker role.
  • He may need someone with policy expertise to advise him on such decisions, someone who can see the big picture rather than just one part of it. This is an advisor role.
  • When he makes a policy decision that spans Cabinet agencies he needs someone to ensure the different parts of his government are coordinated, implementing his policy decision rather than their own preferences.
  • When problems crop up he needs someone to make sure they get solved, especially when the problems and/or solutions cross jurisdictional lines within the executive branch.
  • Finally, he needs policy experts to work with his other advisors to explain and sell his policies to Congress, the public, the press, and the world.

The staffs of the White House policy councils do all these things for the president.

President Trump will inherit from President Obama three White House policy councils:

  1. the National Security Council (NSC);
  2. the National Economic Council (NEC); and
  3. the Domestic Policy Council (DPC).

Each council has two components: the council itself and the policy council staff. There is a National Economic Council, which formally consists of eighteen people: the president, vice president, 12 cabinet-level officials and four senior White House staff. Then there’s an NEC staff within the White House, comprised of 15-25 people. Usually when people refer to the NEC they actually mean the NEC staff. The most senior of these has the title of Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the National Economic Council. President-elect Trump has named Gary Cohn to that position. Mike Flynn will run the NSC with the title National Security Advisor, and they still need someone to run DPC.

I know most about the NEC so I’ll use that for illustration. DPC is a parallel to NEC. NSC, the granddaddy of the three, is more than 15X the staff size (~350) and runs a bit differently, but the basic approach is quite similar.

The hypothetical examples in the first three bullets here are drawn from today’s Wall Street Journal.

  • Advice: President Trump continues: “Should we be doing anything about either of these? Should I tweet something about Facebook or Yahoo, either to praise either firm or to scold them? Do we need to do something from a policy standpoint?”
  • Policy development & decision support: More: “I see the Journal editorial page thinks we should fast-track approvals for liquified natural gas exports. That sounds like a good idea, as long as we don’t shortchange Americans. Get whoever we need together and present me with some options. Also, now that Harry Reid’s gone I think we should get Yucca Mountain restarted. Figure it out.”
  • Implementation: Imagine President Trump has decided to implement his outsourcing tariff using authorities under current law. (Can he?) Doing so will require coordinating implementation work by Treasury (if it’s a tax), USTR (if it’s a tariff) and Commerce because of the trade and business implications, and State to work on the anticipated blowback from foreign governments whose exports to the U.S. will decline. Part of this would be coordination, part of it internal management to ensure that those within the various departments who recommended against the policy nevertheless work toward implementing the President’s decision.
  • Sales and marketing support: Mr. Cohn may need to visit Capitol Hill to explain this outsourcing tariff and its implementation to Congress, or do press interviews, or meet with business and labor leaders. His staff may also help educate other senior White House advisors and Cabinet secretaries who need to help push this element of the President’s economic policy agenda.

The White House policy council staffs each run a manufacturing shop and a service operation. They help the president manufacture policy decisions and they provide policy services to promote those decisions and coordinate their implementation.

Gary Cohn, Mike Flynn, and an as yet unnamed DPC head will have their hands full.