Shall Members of the Cabinet Sit in Congress?

OUR President and cabinet, if not the only are at least the most conspicuous example, in the history of representative government, of an executive which is unable, either personally or by means of an official representative, to explain the wants of its different departments in the legislative branch of the government. The general of the Achaian League was commonly the leader of the Federal Assembly, the Spartan kings addressed the body of Spartan citizens, the Roman consuls led both the Senate and the Popular Assembly, and the Duke of Venice could speak in the Great Council. The members of the Swiss Federal Council can speak in either of the Swiss legislative bodies, though they have no vote therein ; and the members of the Confederate cabinet exercised nearly the same privileges with success. In England, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, members of the ministry sit in one or the other of the two legislative bodies.

The disadvantages of the unique lack of direct connection between the executive and legislative branches of the government of the United States were not so apparent in the early days of our constitution ; but as the extent and duties of the government increase, those disadvantages become proportionally conspicuous. Prominent among them is the fact that Congress legislates on insufficient information. So complex and extended have the huge machines of the national executive departments become, that they are unknown worlds to members of Congress. So conflicting and inefficient is the mass of congressional legislation concerning the executive branch of the government, that the heads of departments have acquired such extended power in the construction and execution of laws that in executing those laws they can often defeat their spirit.

If a member of the cabinet desires that a certain bill shall be passed, for the best working of his department, he is seldom able to accomplish his purpose. Annual reports and special messages to Congress receive only little attention, and members of the cabinet are forced either to allow their departments to go to the bad, or so to execute the existing laws as to obtain the practical result of laws which they desire. Almost necessarily, therefore, the executive branch has increased its prerogatives, and has encroached upon the domain of the legislative, until it has become by far the most important part of our national government.

Moreover, we have no convenient method by which members of Congress can call heads of departments to account for corruption, delinquency, or abuses in their offices. A committee to investigate the conduct of a cabinet officer is appointed only for grave offenses ; all but the most flagrant abuses are passed over, and Congress comes to look upon the faults of the executive with the same indifference with which the latter looks on the incompetency of the former. Each throws all blame upon the other; each, on account of the impossibility of improving the other, becomes careless and reckless; the country runs into evil, and the people, unable to fix the responsibility for general mismanagement, look on our national legislation with indifference and even disgust.

In a well-regulated government the executive and legislative branches should have the same general and specific aims, and should be actuated by the same spirit and enthusiasm; otherwise the faithful execution of the laws is impossible. Harmony between Congress and the national executive is thus essential to the best working of our government, and at present such harmony is too often the effect of accident.

The disadvantages and dangers of the present system are yearly increasing. The recent improvements in the means of communication have enabled all species of organizations to exist on a grander scale than formerly. As a result, the executive departments of the government have become wonderfully extended and complicated; they are rapidly coming more into the control of experts, and their management is growing more mysterious to Congress and the people. Affairs in this age are conducted with such a rush that members of Congress, who are usually active men of business, burdened with a multitude of duties, are unable, from lack of time, to look deeply into the complex executive management of the government. Moreover, as the national executive officers perceive the incompetency of Congress and of the people to deal with the expert business of their departments, they naturally act independently, beyond the scope of their authority, and often arrogantly. So great is the power of the executive, and so concealed is it from the public view, that the temptations are strong to extend it to unauthorized and dangerous limits. Every decade renders it more necessary for Congress to have the constant advice of experts on matters of legislation, and to assume, if possible, a firmer and more intimate control over our executive management.

A remedy for some of these evils might be given if members of the cabinet sat in Congress. That assembly would then have in its midst the best authority on all executive matters ; heads of departments could explain the wants of their departments, and could use their personal efforts to have those wants satisfied; greater harmony would exist between the executive and legislative branches ; responsibility would be more definite; and the members of Congress would have opportunity, during session, daily to question secretaries in regard to their departments. If laws were not executed in the spirit in which they were passed ; if any mismanagement, abuse, or evil existed in any executive department, the injured party could report to some member of Congress, who would demand an explanation of the proper secretary, and expose the wrong to Congress and to the country. At present, members of the cabinet are called to account on questions of minor importance by letter or by private conversation ; and the complaining member of Congress wins no public notice, and loses the good-will of the executive officer, who has come to consider such action by a member an impertinent interference.

The advantages of the method suggested are displayed at present in the English Parliament. Each member of the ministry is obliged to answer, on the floor of his House, any and all questions concerning the working of his department. He is surrounded by as many watchers as there are citizens ; he must guard his every act; every abuse which is brought to his notice must be immediately remedied ; and, as a consequence, the English executive is a model of effectiveness and official purity.

In accordance with the policy which has been here proposed, one of three changes is possible. Our constitution might be so amended that secretaries, though appointed as at present, could debate and vote in Congress. This is the most extreme method ; it would give extraordinary powers to the President, and might be dangerous and unacceptable to the people. The second method is so to amend the constitution that the restriction by which members of Congress are prohibited from holding any executive office should not apply to cabinet positions. This would enable the President to choose his cabinet from members of Congress. This is the English system, and is the most feasible plan, if the cabinet in time is to be made responsible to Congress. The third method is more moderate still, and would permit members of the cabinet to sit in Congress for the purpose of answering any questions, to explain the needs of their departments, and to discuss all questions which appertained directly to their special portfolios ; but they would have no vote. They could have regular hours for attendance in Congress, and would thus be taken from their routine duties only a few hours daily during the legislative session. If any innovation is to be made, the last plan seems most desirable as a beginning; it will permit the trial of the experiment without taking any serious step. This change had the approval of President Garfield, whose long experience in the House of Representatives made him an authority on this question ; and it could be made also without altering the constitution, as the members of the cabinet would not be members of Congress.

The third change is mainly valuable as introductory to the second. Members of the cabinet must be responsible to some power, and it is far better that that power should be a numerous body, like Congress, than one man, like the President. The theory that power in government should be bestowed on two or more branches, and that each should have a check on the other, produces a block system, destroys the force of the government itself, prevents incisiveness and prompt action, tends to diminish and conceal individual responsibility in the members of the government, and thus aggravates natural recklessness. A cabinet answerable to Congress would doubtless weaken the power of the President, and in the present state of aggrandizement of the power of our executive such a change should most assuredly be desired.

It is useful, in this connection, to read some appropriate remarks on the American constitution, by the most profound living scholar on the subject of constitutional government:1 “ In America, if the President and Congress do not agree, neither party has any means of getting rid of the other. The President cannot dissolve Congress, and he is in no way called on to resign his own office. Thus it is quite possible that the executive and legislative branches may be in a state of discord for years. On the other hand, a President of whom Congress thoroughly approves may come to the end of his term of office when nothing calls for any change of men or of measures, and, though he may be reelected, yet his continuance in office is at least jeopardied, and the country is obliged to go through the excitement and turmoil of a presidential election. ... In truth, the evil is one inherent in the form of government; it may, by judicious provisions, be made less baneful, but it cannot be got rid of altogether. It is the weak point of presidential government,— a weak point to be fairly balanced against its strong points, and against the weak points of other systems. . . . This weak point, however, would not have been so obvious, nor would it have needed to be so much dwelled upon as it has been, if it had not been aggravated, rather than diminished, by certain provisions in the American constitution. If the President were elected by Congress, or by some body chosen by or out of Congress, if his ministers were allowed to be members of Congress, or to appear or speak in Congress, the evils of the system would be greatly diminished, while the essential principles of presidential government would remain untouched.”

It is claimed by those who favor the system at present in vogue that the legislative and executive departments should be kept entirely distinct for their best working, and that, by the change which I have proposed, the powers of members in each department would be too widely diffused to remain effective. But at present the legislature in our national government acts without that requisite information which can be best given by the heads of departments, and there is little danger that Congress would immerse itself too deeply in the control of the executive, in these days of our complicated forms of government. Congress has already more than it can do to inform itself correctly in regard to immediate legislation. Nor would the executive department be neglected. Many of the functions which are now performed by members of the cabinet would, under the proposed change, be managed by their assistants; and assistants can easily be found who are as able in executive management as their superior officers. There is no accusation that in England Parliament interferes too much with the executive management, or that the executive department is weak on account of the time which cabinet ministers are obliged to devote to attendance in Parliament.

It is also argued that the present block system is a safeguard against the aggrandizement of the legislative over the executive branch of the national government. The fear of such legislative encroachment was the principal cause of this block system in our government. The age in which the federal constitution was adopted was characterized in Europe by an extraordinary increase in the prerogatives of legislatures, and by the turbulence and excesses of the masses. Hamilton wrote in the Federalist, No. 49, “ We have seen that the tendency of republican governments is to an aggrandizement of the legislative at the expense of the other departments.” Madison wrote in the Federalist, No. 48, “ The legislative department is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its tempestuous vortex.” Jefferson also wrote, in the Notes on the State of Virginia, “ The executive power in our government is not the only, perhaps not even the principal, object of my solicitude. The tyranny of the legislature is really the danger most to be feared, and will continue so for many years to come. The tyranny of the executive power will come in its turn, but at a more distant period.” Since the days of Hamilton affairs have reversed, on account of the intricate complications and wide extent of our executive departments. At present it is the executive power which is stronger, and which is everywhere extending its prerogatives to an extraordinary degree. A century ago it might have appeared that the executive department needed to be independent of the legislative, in order to defend its prerogatives. But now there is no such reason for the lack of close connection between the two departments, and unless our legislature shall acquire a more intimate connection with the executive it will gradually cease to be a potent force in our government. The principal argument by which Hamilton and Jefferson supported this independence of the executive and the legislature can now be used in favor of a closer connection between them. It is singular that neither Hamilton, Madison, nor Jefferson discerned the growth of the modern cabinet. During the last hundred years that growth has been the most remarkable feature in political history. Other nations have modified their forms of government in accordance with the changes of the times ; but the government of the United States, in this respect, has remained stationary. Our executive has increased its powers, necessarily, through the aggrandizement and increased complexity of its departments ; but it has shared none of its powers with Congress, and its relation to that body now is nearly the same as that in which the king of England stood to Parliament a century ago. George the Third had far greater prerogatives than Washington, but to-day the power of the Queen of England is trifling in comparison with that of our President.

It is argued, on the other side that the cabinet will possess dangerous power whenever its members shall be congressmen. But they will be responsible to Congress ; their power will be that of persuasion, and four hundred men will not be controlled by the votes of a dozen.

Lastly, it is objected that a system which makes the cabinet responsible to Congress will diminish the checks upon the passions and feelings of the masses. Hamilton wrote in the Federalist, No. 51, “ A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control in government, but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” Madison, in the Federalist, No. 48, writes, “ It is the reason of the public alone that ought to control and regulate the government. The passions ought to be controlled and regulated by government.” But how can we know what is the reason and what the passion of the people ? Hamilton and Madison never perceived that the people are improved in politics by their own experience and blunders. Had these statesmen lived a century later they might have seen that order and security of property are not the only desiderata in government, but that of far more importance is the attainment by the people of that prudence and foresight which is acquired only by individual political experience. It matters not so much whether this or that policy is of momentary advantage as that such a polity of government may exist by which the responsibility of all political action will be cast on the largest number. By this means alone can a people be made able and prudent; and it is better for them to obtain wisdom and prudence by grievous errors than to be children under the strict tutelage of their rulers. As Congress feels the pulse of the people more fully than can the President, it is true that every increase of the powers of the national legislature at the expense of the executive will give freer vent to the passions of the masses. But there is little danger that the people will rush to ruin by legislation. The fear of the masses has ever been a fond bugbear to constitutional students. The ruin of a country by legislation under popular suffrage is the product of long and slow experiment, and there is little reason to believe that the people of this country, if left to themselves, will rush to blind and experimental suicide.

Willard Brown.

  1. Freeman’s Historical Essay on Presidential Government, page 391.