President to Downgrade Drug Czar Position from Cabinet Rank — A Move Biden Criticized in 1989

Mar 11, 2009 10:21am

When Vice President Biden later today formally announces the nomination of Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as the new Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, he will also be in a way formally downgrading the office from Cabinet-level status to non-Cabinet level status.

Interestingly, Biden himself criticized a similar move by then-President George HW Bush in 1989.

The position of "Drug Czar" was created in 1988; after taking office in 2001 President George W. Bush elevated the "Drug Czar" to Cabinet-level status, a rank afforded other positions not officially in the Cabinet, such as director of the Office of Management and Budget, and U.S. Trade Representative.

But when his father, President George HW Bush appointed the nation’s first Drug Czar in 1989, director William Bennett learned that Bush Sr. had decided not to give the position Cabinet-level status only after hearing about a Cabinet meeting to which he wasn’t invited.

Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, criticized the elder Bush’s position, telling the Washington Post in 1989 that it would lower the profile of the drug war.

"The priority of drugs in the executive branch will actually decrease," Biden said at the time.

Today’s presence in the Cabinet of Biden — credited with having coined the term "drug czar" in 1982 — is the reason the White House today says Kerlikowske does not need Cabinet rank.

The Obama administration "is fortunate to have a vice president with an unrivaled breadth of knowledge about federal drug policy," says an administration official. "Never before has there been someone with this level of knowledge who is as close to the president as Vice President Biden. The vice president will work closely with the director-designate to oversee both the international and domestic anti-drug efforts."

In 1989, Rep. Glenn English, D-Okla — one of the authors of the bill that created the Drug Czar position — said Bush Sr.’s move would "weaken the drug czar in his relationship with other members of the Cabinet … It does trouble me."

"Whether a position is Cabinet-level or not is less important than whether the director will have a seat at the table when important decisions are being made," an Obama administration official says, adding that Kerlikowske "will have full access and a direct line to the president and the vice president."

In his remarks today, Kerlikowske will address that he knows first hand the problems that drugs can cause in families — and will reference his son, Jeffrey’s problem with drugs. 

President Obama is the first president to have admitted having used, in his youth, marijuana and cocaine — "admitted" being the key word in this sentence.

– jpt

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