Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Mr Secretary, My Son-in-Law: William G. Mcadoo, Woodrow Wilson, and the Presidential Cabinet

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Mr Secretary, My Son-in-Law: William G. Mcadoo, Woodrow Wilson, and the Presidential Cabinet

Article excerpt

Searching for Significance in a Noninstitution

The presidential cabinet is a well-known but little examined part of the United States' federal government. Unlike the situation in the Westminster system, the U.S. presidential cabinet is responsible to the executive, not to the legislature, but appointments to it are subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. Unlike the Westminster system, and despite desultory debate at the Philadelphia Convention over the establishment of an executive council to share executive power with the president, the U.S. presidential cabinet enjoys no collective power or even constitutional status (Cohen 1988, 16; Cronin 1980, 178-79; Milkis and Nelson 1980, 44-45; Warshaw 1996, 14).

Accordingly, the Constitution vests executive power solely in the president and makes no mention of a presidential cabinet. It imposes no duty upon presidents even to form one, let alone to call it together or to consult it. Only eight presidential nominees for cabinet have been denied confirmation by the Senate, and since the repeal of the Tenure of Office Act in 1887 the president's right to fire his secretaries at will has not been contested (Cohen 1988, 10. 15). "The American cabinet was in 1793 and is today," Richard Fenno (1959, 19) declared in 1959, "an extralegal creation, functioning in the interstices of the law, surviving in accordance with tradition, and institutionalized by usage alone."

Fenno's study of presidential cabinets is more than 50 years old, but few political scientists have cared to revisit or extend his research. (1) Nelson W. Polsby's study of presidential cabinet making, published in this journal in 1978, posited three ways that presidents had formed their cabinets: using appointments to it to curry favor with interest groups, appointing "substantive specialists" expert in the work of their departments, or selecting "generalist executive[s]" who could bring nonspecific executive experience to the cabinet. Since the advent of the imperial presidency, Polsby thought, presidents had moved away from appointing cabinet secretaries to appease constituent groups and towards choosing generalists who owed their position solely to the president (Polsby 1978, 19, 22-33; see also Best 1981, 62-66; Borrelli 2000; Cohen 1988, 35; Cronin 1980; Warshaw 1996).

In 1984, R. Gordon Hoxie published an account of the cabinet from its origins in Britain's seventeenth century royal government up to its operation during President Ronald Reagan's first term. With such a broad sweep, Hoxie's work did not provide an analytical or theoretical interpretation of the role of the cabinet other than to observe that its role and usefulness have always been within the gift, and utterly dependent upon, the president of the day (Laski 1940, 82-86). "Seven noes and one aye," Lincoln Summed up his cabinet's discussion over whether he should issue the Emancipation Proclamation. "The ayes have it" (Hoxie 1984, 219; see Borrelli 2000, 21).

Jeffrey Cohen provided in 1988 a much more analytical study of the presidential cabinet. "If the cabinet as a body is so unimportant," Cohen asked, "why do presidents invest so much time in building their cabinets? The cabinet must have some intrinsic value to presidents" (Cohen 1988, 3). His answer was that the presidential cabinet, although without institutional status of its own and entirely subject to the president's will, was and is an important part of the federal government. Quite apart from the power and influence that might accrue to individual cabinet secretaries, cabinet as a whole functions as a key representative body that reflects the concerns of regions, industries, interest and demographic groups, and constituents.

Even more importantly, Cohen concluded, the presidential cabinet exercises important symbolic representative functions, in that it--collectively and individually--symbolizes "the colors, tone, and coalition make-up of the administration. …

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