The Cabinet in Congress


SHALL cabinet officers have seats in Congress? This question has been agitated at intervals for more than a halfcentury, and argued in the affirmative by publicists of the standing of Presidents Garfield, Taft, and Wilson, of George H. Pendleton, James G. Blaine, John D. Long, and Gamaliel Bradford, besides many lesser lights. It is now undergoing a revival. The idea is, not to revolutionize our system of government, or even to expand the powers of any part of it, but merely to seat the nearest representatives of the President where they can answer questions or make suggestions concerning pending legislation, as he might if present in person.

American schoolboys of my generation, taught that the more complex a government is the better it is, grew up with so pious a reverence for the tradition of separateness between the legislative and executive machinery of our Republic as almost to lose sight of the fact that the Constitution lays as much stress on the mutual interdependence as on the mutual independence of Congress and the President. Congress, though vested with all legislative powers granted in the Constitution, may not enact a law without submitting it to the President for his approval; the President may not spend a dollar in executing it except by the consent of Congress. The great lesson of the Civil War was that the strength of our nation lies not in a jealous aloofness between its several organs, but in their sympathetic coöperation. The desire of the foremost modern students of constitutional government to bring the President into the most intimate practicable relation with Congress, therefore, does not mean that they would have the President make or Congress execute the laws; their aim is merely to place a practical interpretation on the requirements that the President shall give the lawmakers ‘ information of the state of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall deem necessary and expedient’; and that Congress, thus informed and advised, shall make ‘all laws which shall be necessary and proper’ for carrying into execution the powers vested in any officer of the United States — a sufficient warrant, surely, for the freest consultation between the body and the functionary clothed respectively with these responsibilities.

How shall such intercommunication be conducted? In the early days, the President used to come and speak with Congress face to face. Jefferson let this custom lapse; Wilson revived it; but in the interval the practice became well settled of sending a written message by the hand of a White House clerk, to be read aloud to the two chambers in joint session. Nearly always the reader has had a stentorian voice but no elocutionary skill, and the dreary formalism of the whole programme has resulted in most of the listeners’ leaving the hall with only a general impression of the contents of the message, unless it chanced to be confined to a single subject, or to have been called forth by some serious emergency.

Long experience shows that, in order to command the most earnest consideration from Congress, any recommendation of the President should be put into compact and exclusive form, or delivered by himself. Besides the added weight of human presence and personality, there is a marked advantage in the brevity of the spoken as contrasted with the written exchange of opinions — the reason, probably, why most men of large affairs prefer an interview to correspondence as a vehicle of negotiation.

For their highest value to Congress, the information and recommendations offered by the President sometimes need an elucidation in detail that can be brought out only by questions and answers. Obviously it would be impracticable to require the President to stand up in the hall of either house of Congress as a target for a battery of interrogatories on matters of everyday administration; but there are other ways of reaching the same end. Every subject falls within the jurisdiction of some executive department managed by a member of the Cabinet. As the President’s close counselor and spokesman, why should not this officer place himself at the convenience of Congress, to furnish it with any assistance he can in its task of lawmaking? For a fact, that is what he is supposed to do now, except that his ministrations are filtered through a committee, subject to the usual discounts for indirection. A glance at the present practice may be enlightening.

A representative, let us say, introduces a bill to change the methods of accounting by naval paymasters, which is referred to the Committee on Naval Affairs. If the committee regards it as of sufficient consequence, it refers it in turn to the Navy Department, and the head of the department sends back, in due time, a written opinion that, with an amendment or two of its phraseology, he sees no reason why it should not be enacted into law. Perhaps he may be invited to appear before the committee and supplement his written views with an oral statement. After that, the committee prepares its formal verdict on the merits of the measure, which the House is now free to pass or defeat.

At this stage, however, some member with an inconvenient memory, who has had no share in the committee’s deliberations, may suddenly offer a resolution of inquiry, calling upon the Secretary of War for certain data in the records of his department concerning an experiment in the same general line made by the army paymasters many years ago, which he believes proved unduly expensive in operation. This resolution, referred to the Committee on Military Affairs, may have to wait nearly a week for a meeting, take another day for consideration and report, another for adoption by the House, another for transmission to the War Department, another to find its way to the clerk in that department who has special charge of this class of topics; it may then lie dormant two or three days more while the clerk contrives to find time from his routine duties to search the archives and collate the material desired; by another day the material is put into proper shape for formal transmission, and another is consumed in delivering it to the House. Thus the better part of a fortnight may elapse before the Secretary’s response can be laid before the chamber that sent forth the inquiry. Meanwhile, if new matters have arisen which crowd this one aside momentarily, its chance of disposal is jeoparded, if not lost.

Now, suppose that either of the two secretaries, sitting in the House when the inquiry was propounded, had been notified that on the second day following he would be interrogated regarding such-and-such methods pursued by his pay corps between certain dates. On his return to his office he would have passed the questions to his clerical factotum, who would have gone straight to the sources of information and equipped the Secretary in short order for telling the House what devices had been tried by this or that predecessor, why they had been undertaken and why abandoned — reasons which might instantly have made plain their availability or unavailability for the purpose now contemplated; and the notice would have been served, the data looked up, the interrogatories put and answered, and the ground cleared for the passage or rejection of the bill, — all in onefourth the time, but with fourfold the effectiveness, of a similar proceeding with the means employed to-day.


When it comes to accuracy, there is no comparison between the old manner of connecting the administration with the work of Congress and the manner here proposed. In the spring of 1863 the Senate had before it the alternative of extending the bounty system for voluntary enlistments in the Union army or recruiting the ranks by conscription. Whatever was to be done must be done with no needless delay. The military committee had gone through the form of considering a bill, but had not been able to agree on a recommendation. Some of the senators said that if they could find out what the Secretary of War thought about it, they were willing to vote for anything he deemed essential; others did not care to go so far, doubting whether the Treasury was just then in condition to meet the demand for $20,000,000 which seemed to be involved.

The chairman of the committee was unable to furnish any authentic information on either head. Of the financial aspect of the situation he knew nothing whatever; of the military aspect the most he could say was that he ‘understood ’ that ‘ a member of the committee’ had ‘had some consultation’ with the Secretary of War, and had ‘come away with the impression’ that the Secretary thought well of postponing the conscription and extending the bounties. The member referred to then rose and admitted that he had no authority to speak for the Secretary, but that he had gathered his ‘impression from a casual conversation.’ In this instance the Senate wisely refused to act without more positive guidance; but occasionally I have known action to be taken on not much firmer ground.

Is there any excuse for subjecting the legislation of a great nation to such hazards? Take for another illustration the loan bill of 1864. In the House debate over its details, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania insisted that the principal of the five-twenty bonds was payable in ‘lawful money,’ which meant greenbacks, then worth less than sixty cents on the dollar. He was a strong man, with a large popular following. If his view had prevailed, the markets of Europe would have been closed against our securities at a time when we needed every available resource. Pressed by a fellow member to say whether the Secretary of the Treasury agreed with him, he confessed that he did not know; whereupon Mr. Spalding of New York informed the House that he had ‘ that morning learned from the Secretary of the Treasury that in his opinion the principal of the five-twenties was payable in gold.’ This semiauthoritative statement did not prevent Stevens from offering an amendment that the interest of the bonds should be paid in currency, or from drumming up a majority of twentyone votes in its favor; and it was only by springing a roll-call upon him that this was changed to a majority of twenty-two in the negative, a number of members shifting sides when they discovered that their demagogic tricks were in danger of being advertised to their hurt.

All’s well that ends well, perhaps; but why should time be wasted and risks invited in framing measures of vital importance, — to say nothing of exhibiting Congress to the world in so undignified a light, — when absolute assurance concerning the attitude of the administration could be obtained by putting a direct question to one of its responsible officers, seated in the hall for the purpose?

The proposed reform would undoubtedly benefit the executive branch of the government by holding the departments to a more satisfactory accountability. How loath we Americans are to overhaul our higher public servants, is manifest from the fact that, in the century and a quarter of our national existence, but one President and one member of the Cabinet have been impeached, and even the formal investigation by Congress of charges against cabinet officers has been so rare as to be negligible. Proceedings as serious as these can be instituted only when the offenses charged are of great magnitude; so all alleged misdeeds of a secondary character are passed over with slight attention, if any. This does not make for wholesome discipline at the bar of public opinion. It is human nature to be less careful about things that go unscrutinized by our neighbors than about those upon which the glass of inquisition is liable to be turned at any moment. Moreover, it is only fair to the conscientious cabinet officer to inquire into his acts while they are still recent enough to enable him to marshal names, dates, and figures without delving through a library of musty files; for any unexplained item, however innocent, if allowed to fall into a dark corner and gather dust, may become to the professional defamer what Captain Kidd’s imaginary loot is to the hunter for treasure-trove; and it may emerge one day in a brand-new and particularly vicious species of scandal, to baffle for a long time the best efforts of its victim to expose its real character.

There is still another reason why a prompt, authoritative, and public inquiry into anything in the conduct of an executive department which wears a dubious air, would be a great aid to efficient administration: it would give the head of a department some suggestive hints as to what the men under him are doing, and enlighten the men as to the significance of the tasks they are directed to perform. It would be a physical impossibility for any secretary to supervise personally the work of his department in all its ramifications, or for his subordinates to ask him the meaning of every move he makes; yet, unless a way be devised for keeping the two ends of a department within sight of each other, the faithful subordinate may become a hopeless mechanical drudge, or his tricky colleague be guilty of malfeasance or neglect without the secretary’s suspicion till some artfully embroidered version of the facts crops out in local gossip. The best managed of departments would be better for a frequent airing of its affairs in Congress, in the presence, and with the participation, of its responsible head; and if the more intelligent element in its clerical staff could learn, from public discussions between their chief and the lawmaking body, to what end their work points, their interest would be reflected in a fresh vitality.

Besides producing an excellent moral effect , this sort of publicity would soon prove its value as a measure of economy, by exposing the places where one office could be made to perform the duties now assigned to two or more. Duplication of functions and wasteful diffusion of energy have always been weak spots in the federal service. One department will go on indefinitely doing on a miniature scale what another is doing on a large one: the practice may have grown out of this or that exigency long past, and been continued because nobody has felt directly inspired to meddle with it. Such a relation may exist even between sundry bureaus in a single department. This means, of course, an unnecessary outlay for what accountants style ‘overhead’ expenses. It would take some study, doubtless, to concoct a satisfactory plan for redistributing the duplicated work, but problems far more perplexing are solved every day. If the cabinet officers concerned were subject to interrogation in the open halls of Congress, and thus, as it were, in the hearing of the whole taxpaying public, the uncovering of cases of extravagant duplication would be promptly followed by a demand for an explanation, and this in its turn by an amendment of methods.

In these ways and others, the drawing of the legislative and executive branches into more intimate communion would tend toward the unification of the government generally. No such organism can work to the best advantage with its constituent parts maintaining the attitude of mutual rivalry which has been observable among the executive departments in Washington ever since they became so large and varied in scope. The fateful PinchotBallinger feud resulted from the indisposition of one party to unite with the other in a joint campaign for the achievement of certain aims for the common welfare on which both declared themselves bent.

I never realized how far down into the departments this individualistic ideal had penetrated till once, when I was in the West on a government errand, a mystified field superintendent laid before me two letters he had received from Washington, bearing the signature of the same acting chief-ofbureau, one dated in March and the other in April of that year. The former authorized him to make a certain purchase; the latter notified him that his quarterly accounts had been held up to await proof of his authority for that very purchase. The initials in the upper left corner of each sheet showed me that the letters had been prepared by two division heads who sat, in the home office, at desks facing each other, with only a narrow corridor between; and their superior officer had unquestionably affixed his signature in the ordinary routine of business, merely glancing at the initials as his guaranty. Both division heads were men of conscience and responsibility; yet so absolutely was the unwritten law of insulation then respected in the bureau, that each was going ahead, day after day, turning out his own grist of correspondence without the remotest reference to what his vis-à-vis might be doing. If so ridiculous a game of cross-purposes was possible in one small office, what, pray, dare we hope from a non-coöperative relation between the legislative and executive branches of our huge governmental system?


If cabinet officers sat in Congress, right-minded but uninformed members would be spared many mistakes in legislation, the ill effects of which may be of indefinite duration. For example, in 1906, when the House had under consideration the Burke bill to simplify the process whereby an intelligent and worthy Indian could get possession of his property, a well-meaning Ohio representative proposed an amendment ' that the provisions of this act shall not extend to any Indians in the Indian Territory.’ Congress had been working, amid great difficulties, to perfect an exclusive scheme for the dissolution of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes — the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles — and the equitable division of their lands and funds; and, as these tribes had made their homes in the Indian Territory for seventy years and were identified with it in every one’s mind, our Ohio friend supposed that they were the only members of their race living there. It was his benevolent purpose to ward off any possible interference with the plans that Congress was maturing for their benefit; but, instead of exempting them by their specific names, or under their familiar title as the Five Civilized Tribes, he resorted to the sweeping generalization already quoted. No one else in the hall at the time appears to have understood the situation any better; and, as the session was pretty far advanced and it was assumed on all sides that to submit the provision to the Secretary of the Interior would be a mere matter of form and might involve a fatal delay, it was passed at full gallop. Unfortunately, there were then settled in the Indian Territory, besides the Five Civilized Tribes, remnants of seven others, who were thus shut out from the benefits of the Burke act, although probably a majority of them were better entitled to those benefits than thousands of the privileged Indians just over the border in Oklahoma. Had the Secretary of the Interior been where he could hear what was going on and speak an admonitory word, the blunder need not have happened.

Ihe presence and consultation of cabinet officers while Congress is debating important bills would reduce to a minimum the exercise of the President’s veto power, and thus avert a deal of friction. As Congress is constituted to-day, the President’s objections have the weight of 63 votes in the Senate and 289 in the House. Besides that, they have a tremendous influence with the people, who regard this one man, under ordinary circumstances, as peculiarly their spokesman, whether they know very much about the subject in controversy or not. When he vetoes a bill, therefore, its sponsors suffer a certain humiliation which they would go far to avoid if they could do so with self-respect. True, the President’s like or dislike of a pending bill commonly leaks out through the press before the climax is reached, and if his attitude is hostile the parties in interest can govern themselves accordingly; but the most scrupulously edited newspaper is liable to be misled; so it is customary for any member of Congress who is anxious about the fate of a measure he has in charge to seek an interview with the President and try to fortify himself. This is a highly unsatisfactory resort at best; and occasionally, as its sequel, Congress has passed an act, only to discover, when too late, that there has been a misapprehension somewhere. After the die is cast, there is little comfort, and no seemliness, in bandying vengeful charges of bad faith.

Such disagreeable possibilities, not to mention the anticipatory worries and heartburnings, could be assuaged, perhaps diverted altogether, by the expedient of publicly interrogating a responsible representative of the President regarding those clauses in a bill toward which his disposition is uncertain. When, for instance, in the Fiftyfirst Congress, the Senate sent back the conservative Conger bill converted into one for the free and unlimited coinage of silver, and Speaker Reed had actually to conceal it till he could reorganize his scattered forces for the defense of the public credit, what a blessing would have been the presence in the House of the Secretary of the Treasury, prepared to set the public mind at rest as to the firmness of the Harrison Administration. Again, does any one imagine that the Brice-Gorman tariff of 1894 could have been forced into the statute-book over Mr. Cleveland’s protest if Secretary Carlisle could have responded in the open hall of either house to such questions as Allison and Mills in the one, or McCall and Wilson in the other, would have put to him for the benefit of the whole American people?

Such a change of practice as I have been advocating would materially abridge the activities of the lobby, with advantage to the political morals of the nation. This is not because lobbying is evil in itself, but because, like all forms of indirection, it is more open to abuse, and therefore to suspicion, than the direct way of accomplishing the same end. The lobbyist pleads in his own behalf that he is striving only to induce Congress to do something which it ought to do, but which it will not do unless it is prodded by one who camps constantly at its door; and within certain limitations this is deplorably true. Can any one tell us why we should stand for a neglect of duty by our servants which affords an excuse for such roundabout methods? If, as its apologists assert, Congress leaves so much of its work undone because it has not time to look into the merits of all the propositions submitted to it, why should we encourage it in seeking the facts and figures it needs at the hands of some one not related to the government in any way, and usually having no interest in the business beyond a chance to earn a fee?

In Washington, within a stone’s throw of the great white dome, are ten executive departments, supported at enormous expense in order to insure the government’s mastery of any subject likely to come before it, from the statistics of child-welfare to a declaration of war. Yet, while the people see the secretaries sitting quietly in their offices, signing papers and receiving calls, they see the sleepless lobbyists briskly moving about the Capitol, supplying information here, arguments there, drumming up absentees for a vote, and in a hundred other ways earning their title to membership in the ‘ third house.’ What sort of an impression does this make on the mind of the man in the street? And does familiarity with the spectacle of lobbyists doing the legitimate work of public officers tend to make him a prouder or better citizen?

Just here a skeptical friend inquires, ‘Supposing your plan to have been in effect when the Lusitania was sunk, what sort of a figure would Mr. Bryan have cut, sitting in Congress as a cabinet officer and answering questions regarding the policy of the Wilson Administration?’ That possibility may be dismissed in seven words: Mr. Bryan would not have been there. It is no disparagement of his abilities in other fields to say that, being neither a lawyer nor a diplomatist, he was out of place in this one, and would not have been put into it except as a concession to political expediency. But political expediency is not a consideration which a president could afford to let influence him in choosing a cabinet officer if he knew that the man of his choice would have to stand before Congress in person and act as his mouthpiece, any more than a trustee of a great estate could afford to select his attorneys on grounds of friendship, or because their admirers have made an active canvass in their behalf, or because they come from certain parts of the country, or because they were once either his competitors or his backers in a struggle for a prize he ultimately won. He would look first for professional fitness; and if any extraneous element were permitted to enter into the business at all, it would be as a mere makeweight in discriminating between several candidates with nicely balanced claims. Such ought to be the process of judgment of a trustee for the welfare of one hundred millions of people; such will it be, if one day his most intimate counselors are assigned their full share of duty and responsibility in helping him administer the affairs of the nation.


This brings us to the argument most commonly urged against the project which has furnished my present text: that the American Cabinet, unlike the cabinet of a country under parliamentary government, has no independent or organic standing. It is not mentioned in the Constitution, its nearest approach to recognition there being the authorization of the President to ‘require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices.’ We are asked, therefore, how we could fitly dignify these outsiders as the direct representatives of the President, and seat them in the halls of Congress to speak and advise in his name.

The answer is, that we are contemplating no radical innovation. The laws creating what we call the cabinet offices, in some instances explicitly, and in all by implication, make their occupants, as it were, the living instruments of the President in the performance of his complex functions; and the solemn acts of the heads of departments have long been given effect, even for judicial purposes, as acts of the President. How well rooted this conception of the Cabinet has become in the minds of Congress and the people is evidenced by the law, enacted in 1886 after an exhaustive discussion, placing the heads of departments, in the order of their official seniority, in the line of succession in the event of a temporary vacancy of the presidency and vicepresidency. This provision seems to give them a recognizable and highly important standing in the government, whether or not they ever had one before.

As to their bodily presence on the floors of Congress, surely it involves no worse incongruity than the presence there of a group of territorial delegates who for many years have been sitting and speaking in the House, and doing substantially everything that regular members are entitled to do except vote; and we are asking no more for our cabinet officers. If such a privilege is granted to representatives of minor bodies of our population not yet organized into full-participating political units, on what pretext shall we deny it to a group of federal officers who in a peculiar sense represent the entire body politic, for purposes of commenting on pending legislation? Nobody raises a protest against an outsider’s being brought into either hall to conduct as chaplain the religious exercises at the opening of every day’s session, or against the services of another outsider, the sergeant-at-arms, when he uses the symbols of force to compel good behavior among the lawmakers elected by the people. Nay, it is within the range of possibility that the House may decide one day to have an outsider for its Speaker: there is not a word in the Constitution to forbid it, and within a dozen years the question has been quietly mooted. Concerning the President pro tempore of the Senate the Constitution is similarly silent; and I remember its being seriously proposed, during the Readjuster deadlock of 1881, that the Senate avert a threatened crisis by taking this officer from private life. So it seems not unfair to discard the familiar ‘outsider’ objection as too fragile to block the way of a desired improvement, Another well-worn adverse argument is that the proposed plan would tend to aggrandize the executive branch of the government at the expense of the legislative branch. Since Jefferson prophesied, ‘The Tyranny of the executive power will come ... at no distant date,’ a handful of his faithful worshipers in every generation have felt bound to echo the warning. Yet, with the proverbial obduracy of the watched pot, the Republic has refused to be made over into an empire, even by a Man on Horseback like Grant, or a so-called war-lord like Roosevelt. Jesting aside, the public interrogation of cabinet officers in Congress would tend to the opposite end. As things are now, the Congressional spokesman w ho would rebuke such subtle menaces of White House despotism as may appear in some novel form of phraseology used in a Presidential message, or in the appointment of ‘some Hoover’ to tyrannize over the defenseless foodspeculators, is obliged to depend on invective. This, if it be cheap in quality and have nothing more substantial to follow, presently wearies the ear, without affecting the convictions, of the public. How much greater would be its effectiveness if it were supported by a demand for an explanation, served, in the open arena of debate, upon the officer charged with offending!

In truth, the danger of executive aggression is more to be dreaded from the present haphazard way of doing business, than from any fixed and logical arrangement. It is notorious that when a president wishes to obtain something from a reluctant congress, Washington soon effervesces with stories — of which not a few acquire a color of reality from significant later events — concerning pledges of patronage given to this and that member whose vote is deemed necessary to success. It is such conditions which do more than anything else to destroy the constitutional equilibrium between the executive and legislative powers. The remedy would be simple if all the members of Congress could be trusted to stand together in resistance to every temptation, bold or insidious, to exchange their votes for favors; but a more effective stop could be put to any form of traffic by bringing the potential bargainers face to face, where either side could throw the other into the public pillory if need be. And as an antidote for any alarm about domineering by cabinet officers, it must not be forgotten that the departments, including both their heads and their bodies, are creatures of Congress, which can wipe them out at any time by merely reversing the process by which it called them into being.

Again, it is asserted that Congress has already, in its committee system, all the machinery it needs to aid it in intelligent legislation. Theoretically, no doubt; but practically — as every one knows who studies it at close range the system leaves overmuch to be desired. Painstaking as many committeemen are, enough others are slipshod, or worse, to mottle their common product pretty badly. I have sat in a committee room at a hearing, and have listened to a witness describing the operations of a government office of which he was grossly ignorant, swearing complacently to one false statement after another, which a stenographer soberly took down for the official report, and the refutation of which, from documentary evidence, the chairman brazenly refused to admit to the record. Nor is it long since one of the executive departments lost an important appropriation for which the presiding secretary had applied in writing, because an officious clerk who had been called before the committee took it upon himself to discredit his chief’s recommendation.

Do incidents like these exhibit the committee system in a favorable light, by contrast with a system which would bring the heads of departments themselves squarely into the focus of the inquisition?

Of the objection that it would take too much of the time of the cabinet officers to require them to leave their regular work to attend the sessions of Congress, it suffices to say that under normal conditions they would be needed at the Capitol probably only a few hours every week — certainly no more than they now sacrifice to the visits of Congressmen. These visits, albeit paid under the guise of government business, rarely cover any errand more important than obtaining favors for their constituents. If all genuine government business between members of Congress and members of the Cabinet were transacted in the open halls of House and Senate, most of the ostensible necessity for consuming a secretary’s time in private interviews would be obviated, and the secretary would be relieved from routine duty for so many more hours, which he could put in with great profit at the Capitol.

Our topic is so fruitful of suggestion that, to keep this paper within reasonable bounds of length, a hundred pertinent points must be left undeveloped. It would be easy to show, for example, how, when vital questions arise, like the real condition of the Treasury at the beginning of the second Cleveland administration, or the degree of actual preparedness of our army and navy in the present crisis, a few plain statements drawn by public interrogation from the cabinet officers having these matters respectively in charge, would clear the air and open the way to timely legislation; and also, how much the closer coöperation of President and Congress would do toward evolving a selfconsistent, permanent national policy, to replace the shifty opportunism which now is our only pretense to any policy at all. But these and many other lines of thought must be left for the reader to work out for himself, with the assurance that, the deeper he goes into the question, the more leads he will find, all in the same direction.