In Susan Hennessey and Ben Wittes’ terrific new book, Unmaking The Presidency, they discuss the history and roles of our federal government’s large agencies and how presidents have employed, attempted to avoid and kvetched about them.
“What happens,” they write, “when the government is so big that the secretaries of state and Treasury don’t even know that their departments are disagreeing many rungs below?”
Franklin Roosevelt once mocked his role as presidential referee of minor executive branch decisions, firing off a sarcastic memo to his budget director to say that he agreed with the interior secretary that “fur-bearing animals” should remain within that department’s jurisdiction. Roosevelt added: “You might find out if any Alaska bears are still supervised by (a) War Department, (b) Department of Agriculture, (c) Department of Commerce. They have all had jurisdiction over Alaska bears in the past and many embarrassing situations have been created by the mating of a bear belonging to one Department with a bear belonging to another Department … P.S. I don’t think the Navy is involved, but it may be. Check the Coast Guard. You never can tell.”