Origin and Nature of US Cabinet

Origin and Nature of US Cabinet. Cabinet, in political systems, and the cabinet system of government originated in Great Britain. The Cabinet of the United States is a body consisting of the vice president of the United States and the heads of the executive branch’s federal executive departments in the federal government of the United States, which is regarded as the principal advisory body to the president of the United States.

Origin and Nature of US Cabinet:

The Executive Departments of the Government of the United States are State Treasury, Defense, Interior, Justice, Agriculture, Commerce, Labour, Health, Education and Welfare, Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation. Each Executive Department is headed by a Secretary appointed by the President with the consent of the Senate.

The ten Secretaries and the Attorney General are recognized as the top political figures in the national administration and they were in the line of succession to the Presidency. They sit in the President’s Cabinet. The Constitution has nothing to say about a Presidential Cabinet. It simply mentions that the President may 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.

But the framers of the Constitution had in their minds the importance of counsel in determining policies, though they apparently deemed it unnecessary to insert any formal provision, taking it for granted that the President would have sufficient sense to avail himself of advice upon important occasions. They did, of course, give to the Senate a measure of such authority in connection with appointments and treaty making.

Washington had in the beginning expected that the Senate would serve the same purpose that the Upper Chambers in the Colonial Legislatures had fulfilled, that is, it would be an advisory council with as much executive as legislative responsibility. The Constitution more or less implied this function of the Senate when it provided that the President shall have the power by and With the advice and consent of the Senate to cough treaties and appointments. Washington sought the advice of the Senate in connection with America’s Indian affairs but was snubbed.

Relying on the precedent of English and Colonial courts, the President sought the assistance of the Supreme Court to render opinions of an advisory nature, but here again he was rebuffed,Washington, therefore, began talking over certain questions with the principal officers of government and by 1791, he called regular conferences of key officials for consultation not only on matters pertaining to their particular Departments but in regard to questions of general executive policy, Since 1793, the name cabinet came to be applied to these joint meetings of the Chief Executive with his heads of the Departments. Unknown to the Constitution, Cabinet is an extra-legal institution and is a child of custom and tradition. But it is simply an advisory body, though its growth is an example of the manner in which usage has shaped the Constitution to meet the pressure of necessity.

Early in his administration, Andrew Jackson dispensed with Cabinet meetings altogether and acted on the advice of several of his intimate friends. This Kitchen Cabinet, as it popularly came to be known, served the purpose of the President’s advisers.

His successors, however, followed the custom of calling the heads of the principal Departments into an informal conference for the discussion of complicated problems, and thus, began a series of Presidents who depended rather heavily on their Cabinets.

With the coming in of Woodrow Wilson the reverse phase began. He preferred his own sources of advice or depended upon the council of a very few personal agents such as Colone I Edward M House, Wilson’s successor, President Harding, however, was excessively reliant on his Cabinet, invited the Vice-President to attend its meetings and included in its membership men who on a great deal more about public affairs than did he himself.

President Roosevelt did not lean heavily on his Cabinet, although he did not dispense with its regular meetings. In the beginning, particularly in fashioning his New Deal, he looked for advice to a little group of younger people known as the brain trust. For a time, he tried a super cabinet, the National Emergency Council, which included in its membership more than thirty persons drawn from the Cabinet and independent establishments.

But eventually he returned to the old system, although Roosevelt and Truman leaned heavily on personal friends such as Harry Hopkins and George Allen. President Eisenhower did his best to restore the Cabinet to full duty. He invited such key officials as the Director of the Budget and the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission to attend regularly.

He even established a formal Cabinet Secretariat to organize its work and to keep the necessary records. Eisenhower, accordingly, used an expanded and augmented Cabinet quite extensively as a sounding board arid policy making group.

President Kennedy, on the other hand, preferred to deal directly with those Cabinet members involved in a particular problem and he avoided large-scale formal meetings. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan included the Vice-Presidents in their Cabinets. Carter described his Cabinet officers Secretaries and the Attorney-General as a most perfect and directed them to honor my commitments to the American people.

Though unknown to law yet it has become an integral part of the institutional framework of the United States of America. But it is really not a cabinet in the sense in which we understand it under a system of parliamentary government. The members of the American Cabinet are not members of Congress and neither they take part in its debates nor do they go there to initiate and pilot legislation or to defend the policy of Government or stand in need of seeking its confidence.

They are essentially the advisers of the President. The President can, and often he does, override the Opinions of his ministers or he may not seek it or even if he does seek, it is for him to decide whether to consult them individually or collectively. The use of the Cabinet depends on the President’s desire. Harold Ickes, who was at times enraged at what transpired in the Cabinet, wrote in his Diary after a meeting in 1935. Only the barest routine matters were discussed.

All of which leads me to set down what has been running in my mind for a long time, and that is just what use the Cabinet is under this administration, The cold fact is that in important matters we are seldom called upon for advice. We never discuss exhaustively any policy of government or question of political strategy. The President makes all of his own decisions.

Henry Morgenthan, another member of Roosevelt Cabinet wrote. The important things were never discussed at Cabinet. Lincoln too ignored his Cabinet and at one time seemed on the verge of f doing away with the meetings altogether. Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, complained, There is really very little of a hearing at this time so far as most of the cabinet are concerned, certainly but little consultation in this important period, Again, he said, But little was before the cabinet, which of late Gan hardly be called a council. Each Department conducts and manages its own affairs, informing the President to the extent it pleases.

The Cabinet meets ordinarily once a a week and it is for the President to decide what matters come before it. Proceedings are decidedly informal and there are no rules of transaction of business. Only rarely is there a vote and that too, when the President asks for one.

No minutes or official records were kept of its proceedings. President Eisenhower established a Cabinet Secretariat to organize its work, keep its records and follow through on decisions. In addition to setting up a sub-Cabinet to support the Cabinet itself, he continued the practice of authorizing Cabinet level committees to deal with special problems.

Eisenhower appointed, in November, 1954, Maxwell M.Rable as the Secretary of the Cabinet of the United States. But Cabinet members have no corporate rights which are uniformly recognized by custom. This is well illustrated by two anecdotes, one relating to America and other to Britain. Ayes one, noes seven. The ayes have it, announced Lincoln following a Cabinet consultation in which he found every member against him. The only vote that counts is the President’s own. This is so often contrasted with Lord Melbome putting a question on Corn Laws to the vote in his Cabinet and saying, it does not matter what we will say, as long as we all say the same thing.

Unanimity of decisions is the basic principle of Cabinet government and essence of collective responsibility. The Cabinet members in America may make speeches in support of the general policy of the administration. They may even initiate a line of policy which, having been approved by the President, may be described as their own special contribution, as the agricultural policy of Wallace and the reciprocal low tariff agreements of Hull, in Roosevelt’s administration, But, in general, the American Cabinet minister lives and moves and has his being in the context of Presidential thought. However able  and distinguished, he is bound to be eclipsed by the major significance of his chief.

The Cabinet in the United States is, in fact, the President’s family. President Monroe thought himself as merely a primes inter pares. But as Brogan puts it, even Monroe was primes and he had chosen his peers. A British Prime Minister may have a choice in selecting his colleagues upon whom he can rely, yet the party expects certain men to be in the Cabinet and the country, too, expects them to be there.

In America, the President, unlike the Prime Minister in Britain, does not make a team. The considerations which influence his choice are different from those of a Prime Minister belonging to a country with a Parliamentary system. Some of his colleagues may hardly be known to him when he chooses them. President Wilson had never met Lindley Garrison, his Secretary of the Interior.

He may, again, appoint persons not belonging to his own party, though since 1975 the principle of party solidarity has been adhered to rather closely. Cleveland appointed Walter G. Gresham as Secretary of State and he had been thought of as a Republican candidate for the Presidency.

Theodore Roosevelt and Taft each appointed a Democrat Secretary of War .and Hoover made a Democrat Attorney General. Roosevelt appointed Henry L. Stimson as Secretary of War, and Frank Knox as Secretary of Navy in 1940, although both were prominent Republicans and the latter had l only four years previously been his party’s candidate for Vice-President. Eisenhower thought it good politics to recognize the Democrats for Eisenhower by naming Texas Democrat, Mrs. Ovela Culp Hobby, as his first Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

President Kennedy’s Cabinet included two Republicans, the Secretary of Treasury, Douglas Dillon, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Lyndon Johnson continued with the members of Kennedy’s Cabinet, after his assassination.

If the President makes his Cabinet, he can also unmake it at his will it is true that the choice of the President is not so unrestricted as it is generally imagined. He is limited by party nece3sities, geographical considerations and it is politics also to recognize the major religious groups.

President Kennedy appointed his brother Robert Kennedy as Attorney-General and. it was obviously a personal matter, Wilson was compelled to make Bryan as Secretary of State and for tie same reasons that compelled Gladstone to take in Chamberlain in 1880 and Lord Palmerston to offer a place in his cabinet to Cobdon.

But one Wilson had become settled, he was able to drop Bryan with no trouble at all. It happens only in the Uunited States, because there cannot be a cabinet crises in the British sense. Leaving aside Lincolns and Wilson even weaker President can get rid of any member of the Cabinet as president Arthur got rid of Blainc, the most popular Republican and the greatest force in the party.

The conclusion is obvious. In the United States the Cabinet is only what the President wants it to be. It is his tool and as for its members, breath unmakes them as a breath has made. Its composition is unpredictable. Many of its members, after their terms of office, retire into the obscurity from which their elevation had brought them, Cabinet office, in the words of Professor Laski is an interlude in a career; it is not itself a career.

There is no technique of direct preparation for it; there ts no certainty that it will continue because it has begun; there is no assurance that the successful performance of his functions will lead to a renewal of office in a subsequent administration.

A President can get rid of all his Cabinet as Jackson did; he can get rid of his predecessors Cabinet as Taft and Truman did. He can dismiss a member of the Cabinet as Truman dismissed Wallace. In July, 1979, Carter dismissed Joseph Califano, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and Secretary of the Treasury.

He allowed Attorney General Griffin Bell and the Secretary of Energy, James Schlesinger, to resign. The Secretary of Transport, Brock Adams resigned before he was dismissed. The Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance resigned in April, 1980, because he disagreed with Carter on the rescue of hostages in Iran.

Utility of the Cabinet:-

Nevertheless the Cabinet has a character and importance of its own. Membership in it continues to be the ambition of many politicians, And although there is considerable variation in its prestige and influence from administration to administration, yet it must meet once a week and transact two types of business. In the first place, the broad policies of the government are examined and discussed.

The President may frequently consult the Cabinet on matters of top policy, He may accept their opinion or not, but the discussions bring out useful information and opinion, clarify views and promote morale in administration. Cabinet discussions help to sustain the President and render him more responsible to the people.

The second type of work it docs is rather more routine. The President co-ordinates the activities of different Departments and resolves interdepartmental conflicts which are bound to arise in a complicated and gigantic administration, as one finds in the United States.

What the President does is that he frequently meets the individual departmental heads and agency chiefs, listens to their complaints and limitations and, then, asks the Cabinet to attempt co-ordination. Cabinet meetings and discussions help to iron out departmental differences and misunderstandings. The Cabinet meeting may also serve to produce a sense of administrative responsibility and coherence in an administrative structure that is fragmented, specialized, and diffused.

While evaluating the role of the American Cabinet, it maybe noted that it is a body of advises to the President and not a council of his colleagues with whom he has to work and upon whose approval he depends. Cabinet discussion, as Professor Laski says,

is the collection of opinions by the President with a view to clarifying his own mind, rather than a search for a collective decision.

The Cabinet members cannot publicly oppose the direction of the President. Roosevelt made it significantly clear. He said, when a Cabinet member speaks publicly, he usually speaks on the authorization of the President, in which case he speaks for the President. If he takes it upon himself to announce a policy that is contrary to the policy the President wants carried out, he can cause a great deal of trouble.

A few significant suggestions have been made for making the Cabinet a more potent factor in administration. One suggestion is that the Cabinet could be transformed into a vigorous institution simply by making the proper appointments. A good Cabinet, commented Professor Laski, Ought to be a place where the large outlines of policy can be hammered out in common, where the essential strategy is decided upon, where the President knows that he will hear, both in affirmation and in doubt, even in negation, most of what can be said about the direction he proposes to follow.

A Cabinet functioning in this spirit could, indeed, stimulate administrative leadership, but thus far the Cabinet has fallen short of such an ideal. Alexander Haig, Secretary of State in Reagan Cabinet suggested,  if a government as large and complex as ours is to function, the President must delegate a measure of authority.

Howell, consistently and effectively the executive branch functions will depend to a great extent on how wisely its President chooses, and uses, his Cabinet. The basic criteria of selection, he says, should be excellence and competence, preferably demonstrated by successful experience in fields at least related to those for which any particular Cabinet officer is to be made responsible.

Haig also proposed that a President cannot squander time on minutiae. Cabinet members must be responsible for managing their respective departments for which they need a delegation of requisite authority or the right kind of presidential support and backing. On policy matters affecting the responsibilities or interests of more than one cabinet department the President should compel every cabinet officer to make policy recommendations to the President in front of, and open to challenge by, other Cabinet officers especially those whose responsibilities or interests are affected by the issue in question. Every Cabinet officer must have periodic private access to the President,otherwise the officer’s morale, prestige and hence effectiveness will be gravely undermined.

Suggestions have also been made to establish closer relations between the members of the Cabinet and Congress by giving them seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives and the tight to participate in debate without the right to vote. The Secretaries (Cabinet members) are now limited to appearing before the Congressional Committees.

The proposed arrangement could Conceivably be a mutual advantage. It has been contended that there is no constitutional obstacle if this arrangement is brought about. But there Seems slight prospect in fact of the adoption of this plan.

Congress itself is hesitant, Alexander Haig noted that Cabinet members can be invaluable in expounding, defending and lobbying for the President’s own programme in Congress, without making any institutional changes, with the media, and through each Cabinet officer’s personal range of contacts. Cabinet officers will want to be as responsive as possible to congressional needs and desires in fact they have to be, since Congress controls their department’s budgets.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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