President-elect casts his net to pay party debts: Despite much talk of fundamental change, the new cabinet has familiar faces, writes Rupert Cornwell

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The Independent Online
By European standards, the making of a US cabinet is a wondrous process. John Major may be obliged to look within the Palace of Westminster, but no such constraints apply to Bill Clinton. When his cabinet meets this month, not a sitting parliamentarian will be among them.

All stems from the peculiarities of the US system: the strict separation of powers between the executive and the legislature (indeed members of the first are barred from belonging to the second), the extreme vagueness of electoral manifestos and the consequently scant ideological differences between the two main parties.

As a result, a president can stuff his administration with talent from all walks of life, irrespective of nominal party allegiance. Cross-fertilisation between government, industry and academe is easy in the United States.

In the event, Mr Clinton did not cast his net especially wide. Three of his 18-strong cabinet were congressmen, five are former Democratic mayors, governors, or in the case of Ron Brown, the party chairman, a senior party official. Three are academics. Six served in the Carter administration. He picked more blacks and women, but 13 of the 18 are lawyers.

His predecessors have been more adventurous. Dwight Eisenhower made the General Motors chairman, 'Engine Charlie' Wilson, his Secretary of Defense in 1953. John F Kennedy persuaded Robert McNamara to leave Ford for the same job. Party alignment was no problem either. James Schlesinger was Defense Secretary under Republican Presidents Nixon and Ford, then Energy Secretary under Jimmy Carter.

John Connally, the Democratic Governor of Texas, was in Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas on 22 November 1963. A few years on he became not merely a Republican, but Richard Nixon's Treasury Secretary to boot.

Thus far Mr Clinton has not given any Republican a job; too many Democrats have waited in the wings for 12 years. Some of his choices are less bold than they first look. Zoe Baird left a big insurance group to be Attorney General, but she worked in Mr Carter's Justice Department and his White House. Hazel O'Leary, named as Energy Secretary, was boss of a big Midwestern power company, but in the late 1970s, she was on the staff of Mr Schlesinger, the Energy Secretary.

More than 3,000 political appointments must be filled by the Clinton team. When he leaves office, so will they: to industry, law and lobbying firms, universities and elsewhere. But as night follows day, some will be back in a future Democratic (or Republican) administration, and a few in the cabinet itself.

The system has its snags. A cabinet post can be repayment of a political debt (the case of Ron Brown). Despite safeguards, conflict of interest is an ever-present risk; Mr Clinton insists he has tightened ethics rules, but only time will tell. Confirmation hearings in the Senate are supposed to offer a safeguard. In practice, scrutiny is minimal - witness the approval by acclamation of Lloyd Bentsen as Treasury Secretary, before a question had been asked.

An appointee must pass under the media microscope, where yesteryear's peccadillo can be magnified into today's front-page sensation. Some argue that the threat of invasion of privacy deters qualified candidates. But provided all receive equal treatment, such examination is surely reasonable.

More serious is the danger an outsider will lack political skills. British MPs who become ministers may know little about the work of their departments. Their top officials - unlike those in the US - are permanent civil servants. MPs know what makes Parliament tick, and any dirty linen will probably have come out in the Westminster wash.