Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

News Flash for Specter: Cabinet Officers Are Not Independent

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.

Discussions - 7 Comments

One ought not be surprised to see Sen. Specter’s faux pas. One ought to suspect, as you obviously do, Robert, that Sen. Specter knows perfectly well that in this, as in other matters, the Constitution and the law are not as he wishes they were. But hey -- what’s a little Constitutional misunderstanding among friends, right? As the newly elected Chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, he can fix the problem and everything will be fine. . .

For someone that the press pre-emptively dubbed Senate Judiciary Chairman, Specter seems to know very little about some fairly elementary aspects of our system of government.

During the Fort Sumter emergency, Secretary of State Seward attempted to negotiate with the Confederates to defuse the crisis. Lincoln couls have embaraseed Seward but merely chose to remind him that he, the president, held the executive authority. Seward was chastened and became perhaps the cabinet member most loyal to Lincoln.

Spector must have short term memory loss. He seems to have forgotten that he barely won re-election; that many Pennsylvanians (even Republicans) did not want him re-elected because he has become too out of touch with reality.


Ah, but there’s no need for Specter to remember. Voters won’t six years from now, and of course, he may not run again anyway.

The original intention was indeed for Senators to be independent of the voters, but it was also a Senate of independent judgement -- not a Senate guided by some ruling-class consensus.

Given a choice between a Senate that reliably reflects the Establishment and a Senate that lives in fear of the voters, I’ll take the latter.

Bush has only himself to blame for Specter. He campaigned for him vigorously in the ’04 primary, which Specter barely won. Specter cannot be trusted as far as he can be thrown. Our naive president will learn soon enough that he is not "a good man" with "a good heart."

This is the sixth or seventh time in the last few weeks I’ve seen "tow the line" in print. Since "toe the line" has the double advantage of making sense and actually being correct, I’d like to see some daring soul use it some day.

Mr. Burke:

Thanks for the catch. I have made the correction.

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