The Cabinet

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Beyond that the Constitution is silent. As a result the Cabinet’s role has been defined historically by an admixture of custom, congressional statute, and a series of executive orders from the Presidents. Its institutionalization, on the other hand, is almost exclusively the work of George Washington, whose influence here, as in so many other areas of the Presidency, was monumental. Not only did he establish the Cabinet’s basic form, but he also created most of the legalistic precedents that have given it life ever since.

Historians remain divided over the date of the first formal Cabinet meeting, but the circumstances surrounding the emergence of the body itself are relatively clear. By September, 1789, some five months after Washington took office, Congress had authorized the formation of three executive departments—State, War, and the Treasury—and had established the Attorney General’s post. Almost immediately Washington began soliciting in writing the opinions of each departmental officer on a wide varietv of topics. Shortly he met with them individually at private breakfasts or in their offices. Perhaps in 1702, certainly by 1793, Washington brought them together on a regular basis to share in policy discussions, to hear drafts of public papers (some of which they prepared), to solicit constitutional opinions, and to impart information. By April, 170S, when John Adams was in the Presidency, members of Congress were speaking of “the great council of the nation” or of “the cabinet” to describe what had become a settled practice of the executive branch.

By then, too, Washington had established a set of informal guidelines that, hardened by tradition, have guided the Cabinet into the twentieth century. Occasionally chal lcnged but never overturned, three principles stand out:

  1. • All Cabinet officers are the President’s sulxjrdinatcs—his assistants and not his rivals for power. They use his authority at his direction; they do not share it. (hose who cannot give him unstinting allegiance or who exceed their roles must resign.
  2. • The Cabinet is the creature of the President, bound to him alone, both administratively and politically. Hc is the overseer of their work, and all Cabinet officers are answerable only to him. His request lor a resignation is by itself sufficient; a similar request from Congress has no force.
  3. • The Cabinet is independent of Congress. Although the legislature passes the enabling acts that create and delimit each department, the full responsibility for implementation and supervision rests with the President. The exceptions are impeachment and the special status of the Secretary of the Treasury on certain fiscal matters because of congressional control of the money power as provided for in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. In addition, Cabinet members are expressly enjoined from serving in Congress while in the President’s service by the terms of Article 1, Section 6 of the Constitution, which prohibits dual officeholding.

The effect of these principles is visible in the independence that virtually every President since Washington has enjoyed in making departmental appointments. Although the Founding Fathers apparently intended the Cabinet to serve as a check on Presidential power, both Congress and the nation almost immediately accepted the right of the Chief Executive to surround himself with assistants politically loyal to him, favorably disposed toward his political philosophy and goals, and dedicated to advancing his political fortunes.

Again, George Washington supplied the precedent. A leader clearly disposed to seek advice wherever he could find it—he maintained a wide circle of correspondents in every part of the country to keep himself informed of regional views while in the Presidency—he nonetheless turned the Cabinet into a political instrument of uniform views early in his second term.

The change was precipitated by the feud that had developed between his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, and the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Following Jefferson’s angry resignation in 1793 because the majority, including Washington, supported Hamilton’s position on the future course of the country, the President announced that henceforward he would not knowingly appoint to office any Secretary “whose political tenets are adverse to the measures which the general government are pursuing. …” To do otherwise, Washington said, “would be a form of political suicide.” Other Presidents have taken a similar view on the partisan nature of the Cabinet. In the last fifteen years, for example, the only appointees not of the President’s party were C. Douglas Dillon and Robert McNamara, Republicans who served, respectively, as Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of Defense to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Democrats.

Aside from the obvious political qualifications there are no hard-and-fast rules governing the appointment of Cabinet officers. In general the persons appointed to the four “policy” departments (State, Treasury, Defense, and Justice) have achieved national stature in government service at the federal or state level or in business. Appointees to the so-called client or service departments (Agriculture, for example) are often drawn from Congress, the state governments, or the special-interest groups they are to represent at the Cabinet level.