How much advice does the president need? Should the president rely on just one person for advice on a straightforward policy question, or delegate a decision to a single person?

Challenge #1: Any policy problem difficult enough to make it to the president’s desk is usually multidimensional.

Challenge #2: The work of government is often highly interconnected. What one department does affects another.

Challenge #3: Once you get past the analysis, most presidential decisions involve tradeoffs among competing values and interests. I believe those judgment calls should be made by the person selected by voters.

Let’s construct an imaginary example of what appears to be a straightforward, even simple, policy question, and then use that to understand how policy advice to a president typically works.

Suppose House & Senate Republicans are moving a bill to increase government infrastructure spending by $200 B over the next decade, fully offset by cuts to other government spending. Let’s pretend Senator Ron Wyden, senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, proposes doubling that new spending to $400 B over ten years with the increment to be offset by a roughly ten cent per gallon tax increase on gasoline and diesel fuel. Suppose Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has told White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus that he wants to talk to President Trump about this proposal. Finally, suppose President Trump decides he wants advice on how to respond to Senator Schumer.

Thus the question is: How should President Trump respond to Congressional Democrats’ proposal to double the proposed government infrastructure spending increase to $400 B, offset by a tax increase of roughly ten cents per gallon on gas and diesel fuel?

Pretty straightforward, right? Let’s unpack the question the way a White House policy council staff would.

Policy dimensions

  • Numbers: Are Senator Wyden’s numbers right? Will a ten cent per gallon fuel tax increase raise $200 B over ten years? A tax increase will increase the gross pump price, which will reduce demand for fuel, partially offsetting the initial price increase. What is the net effect on the pump price from a ten cent per gallon gross increase?
  • More infrastructure: How much should the president value an additional $200 B of infrastructure spending? How much more economic growth and how much better of a quality of life will an additional $200 B buy? What does it mean for people and stuff traveling by air, rail, car, truck, bus, and ship?
  • Economic effects of tax increase: What are the economic effects of tax and price increases of that size? Will they slow growth and by how much? What are the distributional impacts: regional geographic distribution, urban vs. rural, income distribution? What are the sectoral impacts: trucking, agriculture, Uber/Lyft/taxi, the transport component of the cost of consumer goods?
  • Environmental: More expensive fuel —> less driving —> less pollution and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. How big are these effects and how do they compare with other policy tools like fuel economy requirements and limits on power plant and industrial emissions?
  • Energy supply and demand; national security: How much will domestic fuel demand decline? How will that affect domestic oil and gasoline suppliers? How will it affect U.S. oil and fuel imports and exports? Will those changes affect our relationships with foreign oil suppliers like Venezuela and the Middle East?
  • Other increments: What if we did half what Senator Schumer is offering, +$100 B for a 5 cent increase? What if we doubled Schumer’s proposal to $400 B / 20 cents? What if we did Schumer’s +$200 B paid for half by gas tax and half by further spending cuts, or all by spending cuts?

Legislative, political, and communications dimensions

  • Communications: Fuel tax increases are extremely unpopular and communicating support for them is hard. What is the best communications strategy? What exactly will the president and his Administration say?
  • The politics are multi-dimensional:
    • left-right: The more
      [economically] conservative you are, the more you tend to oppose any tax increases, including these.
    • urban-rural: City dwellers are affected less than rural folk. If you drive your F-150 forty miles to and from work each day, you care a lot about fuel taxes.
    • infrastructure spending: Almost every Member of Congress wants to spend more money on infrastructure. Most will suck up a lot of other political pain if it means fixing a bridge in their district or State.
    • campaign fear: The campaign attack ads against an incumbent who voted for a gas tax increase write themselves. I wonder if I can get an ad on that little TV built into the gas pump?
    • political cover: Bipartisanship and/or presidential support might partially mitigate someone’s re-election risk.
    • States and localities: When the Feds raise these taxes it makes it harder for Governors and Mayors to do the same, triggering political pushback from those officials.
  • Legislative:
    • votes: How many Republican votes do we lose in the House and Senate if we support including a gas tax increase? How many Democrats do we pick up? Would we risk a Senate filibuster on the right? What would the votes look like if we counter-offered a different pay-for?
    • leadership support: Would Ryan and McConnell go along with it if the president insisted? They control the legislative process and without them we’re sunk.
    • other effects on the bill: If we lose Republican votes do we have to make other policy sacrifices because we now rely on Democrats to pass the bill? Will Congressional Democrats then demand further changes to the type or location of spending, or to union-related or environmental provisions?
    • legislative linkage: How would splitting Congressional Republicans and antagonizing their leadership weaken our ability to get them (the majority party) to help us with other parts of our legislative agenda? Would an alliance with Schumer on this bill provide other legislative benefits?

Someone needs to be able to educate the president about all these aspects of this decision as well as to answer these questions as needed. Let’s look at the president’s most senior advisors: Cabinet Secretaries and the most senior White House staff. Which of them have information, expertise, and/or formal responsibility for these questions and should be given an opportunity to advise the president on this decision?

Two Cabinet-level officials are particularly important:

  • Secretary of the Treasury because it’s taxes; and
  • Secretary of Transportation because of the infrastructure spending.

Six additional Cabinet-level officials can make strong cases that they should be part of the discussion:

  • EPA Administrator because of the environmental impacts;
  • Secretaries of Interior and Energy because of the effects on oil supply (Interior) and demand and import/export (Energy);
  • Secretaries of Commerce and Agriculture because of the sectoral impacts;
  • Secretary of Labor if a legislative alliance with Democrats necessitates changes in labor policy.

So far we’re between two and six Cabinet level officials who probably should be part of this decision. Now let’s look inside the White House (technically the Executive Office of the President, which includes the White House as well as other offices). We’ll start with the in-house policy experts.

  • The President needs to have the Director of the Office of Management and Budget who manages both the spending and tax sides of the ledger. $200 B is a lot of money.
  • He’ll need his chief economist (Council of Economic Advisers) to answer the economic questions. In theory maybe SecTreas or SecCommerce could do that, but while those two have economists working for them, you’d like to have an economist principal in the room. That’s the CEA Chair.
  • If you include EPA you’ll also include the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

Then you need the non-policy advisors in the White House:

  • the head of White House Legislative Affairs to address all the legislative complexities described above;
  • the president’s White House political advisor to advise on how this affects politics, including popularity, partisanship, and interest group support and opposition; and
  • the communications director and the press secretary to advise on how this fits (or doesn’t) in the president’s overall message and on how to talk about it publicly.

We’ve added another seven White House advisors so far. Just a few more:

  • the Vice President;
  • the White House Chief of Staff;
  • the Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy; and finally,
  • the Director of the National Economic Council, who corrals all these people, coordinates the process, produces the paper and runs the meetings.

Phew! That means the skinny version of this decision, with only two cabinet secretaries, has twelve senior people who merit advising the president on this simple question. The fuller version has up to nineteen advisors, each of whom has a strong argument for participating in the discussion leading up to this presidential decision. In practice nineteen is too many; you’d probably end up with around 15. And the president might take input from a dozen or more senior advisors, then have a follow-on smaller discussion with just a few of them. Even so, a lot of people need to advise the key decision-maker, even if they’re not all in the room when he makes the final call.

Why do you typically include so many people in providing input into a presidential decision?

  1. These advisors have information and expertise—Each question listed above requires analysis and research. The experts who do this work report to these 12-19 principals throughout the Cabinet and White House. These principals also have personal expertise, experience, and judgment (if you hired right). And they are each in close and frequent contact with relevant constituencies (Congress, truckers, farmers, drivers, labor unions, the press, farmers…) and can therefore add useful context and texture to a policy discussion.
  2. They have formal jurisdiction—Part of their job is to advise the president on policy issues within their portfolios.
  3. Cabinet management, morale, and policy implementation—These senior advisors are successful people who were told they’d have an impact on policy. They’re working hard on the president’s behalf every day. Many have not-small egos. If you exclude them from the big decisions you’ll have to spend more time and energy managing them, and you’ll have a tougher time getting their portions of the bureaucracy to faithfully implement the president’s decision.
  4. Cabinet effectiveness — A Cabinet secretary who is excluded from providing input directly to the president quickly loses the ability to be effective with others: Congress, the press, and interest groups. If you don’t have the President’s ear people figure that out quickly and work around you.
  5. Reduce insularity — Mixing up and expanding the personnel involved reduces the chance the president and his closest advisors will get trapped in a small groupthink bubble.

Could President Trump delegate a policy decision like this to one person, either a Cabinet Secretary or someone in the White House? Sure, but which one? Either you delegate to one person who likely prioritizes their part of the problem, leading to an unbalanced decision that doesn’t account for all of the President’s interests. Or you simply push the advise problem down a level: if you delegate to the White House Chief of Staff, or the Vice President, or the DCOS or NEC Director, then that person needs to get advice from these other dozen or more senior advisors. You haven’t solved the advice management challenge, you’ve simply relocated it.

All of the above was to advise the president on an apparently easy question. Imagine how complex it gets when you’re dealing with something hard. Can the president rely on one person for policy advice? Of course. A president can make decisions any way he wants. If he wants to make the judgment calls, and if he wants to make a well-informed decision, he needs information and counsel that represents a wide range of experience, expertise, and viewpoints.