There is much that could be and that has already been said by others about Alberto Gonzales’s confirmation hearings for the postion of U.S. Attorney General. The hearings gave us a first glimpse of Senator Arlen Specter as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and, while he has been largely praised for his handling of the hearing, he committed an embarassing constitutional error. AP reports that Specter
proclaimed his independence and said he expected the same from Alberto Gonzales, President Bush’s nominee to be attorney general.
"While Judge Gonzales is the appointee of the president ... he’s representing the people of the United States, a key distinction which I’m pleased to say in advance that Judge Gonzales has noted in the statement which he has submitted," Specter said.
Senator Specter can be as independent as his constituent electors allow him to be, but Judge Gonzales cannot be independent as U.S. Attorney General. That is because cabinet officers have no independent constitutional authority. All of their power is derivative from the President, in whom the Constitution vests all executive power. If Gonzales, or any other cabinet officer were to decide to go off an independent lark, the President could override their decisions by directing them to toe the line, or by removing them from office. While it is true that cabinet officers serve the people, they do so by carrying out the agenda of the President whom the people elected. If the people believe that the cabinet officer is inappropriately carrying out the duties of his office, the remedy is not an appeal to a political check on the imagined independence of the cabinet officer, but ultimately is a political check on the President himself.
Specter is just the latest in a cavalcade of malcontents to call for greater independence among the cabinet officers. Most of these calls have come from those who are disappointed with the reelection of President Bush, who therefore wish to undermine the agenda of his Presidency. Yet aside from the clear constitutional basis to recognize cabinet officers as subsidiary rather than independent, such a system respects the democratic process. The people get a single vote for the Executive--for the person whose policies they would like to see implemented by the cabinet offices. By suggesting that the cabinet should be independent, the Specter-objectors make those positions less responsive to the people, and therefore less democratic. Of course, this is precisely what the blue staters want. They know better than the majority of Americans, who they have dubbed as stupid and misguided, and therefore they seek cabinet officers who are beholden to their values and not to the electorate or the electorate’s popularly elected President.