Michelle Obama: Administration Employee or Private Citizen?

Politico's Josh Gerstein reports on a fascinating Republican attempt to subject Michelle Obama's policy role to greater scrutiny. At issue is whether the president's spouse is a public citizen or a member of the administration:

Under [Rep. Darrell] Issa’s amendment, any government policy group that Mrs. Obama or another first spouse regularly participates in would be subject to a law requiring meetings to be announced in advance and, in most instances, public. … Issa’s amendment would have effectively overturned a 1993 federal appeals court decision which held that First Lady Hillary Clinton could be considered the equivalent of a federal employee. The court ruled that Clinton’s involvement in a presidential Health Care Task Force was not enough to render the group an outside advisory panel which had to meet in public and disclose its records.

In the April print issue, I have a column (not yet available to non-subscribers) discussing Michelle Obama's tour of federal agencies and her evolving political role. In that piece, I suggest the first lady should, indeed, be considered a federal employee, and should earn a salary garnished from her husband's wages. "Since we expect our presidents to be just one half of a 24/7 public-relations team," I write, "why not pay the president less–say $300,000–and make out the remainder of the check to his wife?" The idea of conjugal wage sharing is one I borrow from feminist political philosopher Susan Moller Okin.

The reality is that throughout American history, first ladies have consistently played a role more akin to an employee of the administration than to that of a regular citizen. The 1993 ruling should stand, as it protects this historic role and keeps the first lady from being shunted into purely "wifely," domestic duties. And the first lady should also be paid. (But I'm not holding my breath for that.)

cross-posted at TAPPED

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