“Constructing a Humanist Politics”


Issue No 19 Friday 16 January 2009





This week


·         How the US Cabinet Works. With President Obama’s Inauguration Next Tuesday He Brings A Whole New Administrative Apparatus With Over 4000 New Staff




What is happening now of interest to Civic Republicanism




·         How the US Cabinet Works. With President Obama’s Inauguration Next Tuesday He Brings A Whole New Administrative Apparatus With Over 4000 New Staff


This coming Tuesday, at 12 noon, 20th January 2009, President-elect Obama will be sworn in as the new President of the United States. Whilst this will receive full media attention what is perhaps less evident to British audiences is the radical change that will take place in the whole administration of the Executive Office. It is worthwhile comparing the way the American executive administration works with the British executive administration we are more familiar with.


Like the British Prime Minister, the American President chooses a “Cabinet” to enable him or her to run the executive function and, indeed, as with so many aspects of the American system this was based on the British system. But in certain respects the difference between the American Cabinet and the British Cabinet is striking. This results from the fundamental Separation of Powers between Executive and Legislature that exists in the United States and this is a feature, of course, that we do not have.


On both sides of the Atlantic, the cabinet is a collection of heads of the key departments of state. On both sides of the Atlantic, the appointment of these heads is the gift of the executive leader. We are used to seeing the British Prime Minister selecting their cabinet principally from the elected members of the House of Commons, but it is not generally appreciated that the Prime Minister is not obliged to choose members of the cabinet from the Commons - or for that matter from the House of Lords. They are free to choose anyone from any walk of life although if they choose someone who does not have a seat in Parliament the frequent custom is that the appointee takes up a seat in the Lords. This was the case with the appointment of Peter, now Lord, Mandleson, as Business Secretary when he was parachuted in from his lucrative job in Brussels in 2008.


However, the public expect to see the majority of the members of the Cabinet made up of MPs for one simple reason – accountability. A head of a department as an MP is obliged to confront the House of Commons to explain their decisions. If they are a member of the House of Lords then they are directly accountable only to the Lords and it is generally thought that this lets them off the hook somewhat with regard to explaining and justifying their decisions. It is left to a second ranking minister attached to their department to confront the rough and tumble of the Commons.


With the American system, far from it being expected that cabinet members will be drawn from the Legislature, i.e. Congress, the Constitution expressly forbids it. If this were not the case then this would leave some persons as members of the Executive as well as the Legislature and so the Separation of Powers that is so fundamental to the Constitution would be lost. If someone from Congress is chosen to take up a position in the Cabinet (or for that matter the position of President) they are obliged to resign their seat before they take up the new role. So we see, for instance, Barack Obama has resigned his seat in the Senate, as has his Vice-President, Joe Biden, and his Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton.


As well the constitutional principle that differentiates America and Britain in the make up of the Cabinet, there is also in Britain the practical matter of people having to do two demanding jobs. For instance, as well as being Foreign Secretary, David Milliband is also the Member of Parliament for the constituency of South Shields. It might well be asked how anyone could possibly perform two such radically differing functions. On the one hand, to be shaking hands with heads of state and, on the other, to be listening to constituents’ grievances on the local social services, sounds like a tall order for even the most adaptable and energetic person. And also, as an MP, Milliband must also be present to vote in the Commons. The difficulty this can cause was demonstrated in 2008, when he was obliged to cut short a visit to the Middle East in order to return to Westminster to vote for the Bill to extend the right of police to detain terrorist suspects to 42 days. It must surely have been difficult for his Middle Eastern hosts, who would be more familiar with the system of presidential republics, to understand the priority given to voting on domestic business over vital international matters.


Whereas it would appear that the American system of Separation between the Cabinet and the Legislature has a lot to recommend it, the usual criticism of it concerns the question of accountability. It is argued that there is a tendency for the Cabinet to be isolated from the legislature as its members are barred from entry into either the House of Representatives or the Senate as they are not members of either. Where they do come up against Congress however is through that vital element of checks and balances that the framers of the Constitution incorporated (again copied from Britain) - the Congressional Committees. These immensely powerful committees can demand that cabinet members are called to account before their members. It could be argued that the Congressional Committees, like our Select Committees, provide a more searching questioning than the knockabout that is the House of Commons.


There is a further big difference between the American and British systems of cabinet government where the British systems is probably superior. This concerns the relation of the Cabinet to the civil service.


In Britain when a new government is elected through a general election we are used to there being changes at the top of a government department. But under the new head of department the permanent civil service carries on and adapts accordingly. This system has the advantage that the political change at the top is tempered by the continuity in the civil service. Although, recently, governments have more and more challenged the authority of the civil service, the basic principle remains.


By contrast, in America, with the arrival of a new administration, there are root and branch changes to departments of state. For instance, as many as 4000 new appointments were made as a result of Obama’s election. This gives the incoming President enormous influence and we may ask whether this really serves the interest of good government. The ability of the President and his or her administration to award new posts frequently results in accusations of graft and favour. The reputation of the British civil services rests on its impartiality and professionalism and surely this is an asset to be prized.


The principle of Separation of Powers in the US means that there must be no overlap between the Executive and the Legislature but as already stated there are checks and balances between the two. In respect of the Cabinet, there is in the US system one more essential procedure that is completely absent in the British parliamentary system – the vetting of Cabinet members by the Legislature. The relevant Senate committee must approve a Cabinet appointment and then the Senate itself votes to finally approve. For example, the Foreign Relations Committee has confirmed the appointment of Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State (although the vote at 16 to one was not unanimous). The Senate as a whole will formally approve her appointment on 20th January just after the inauguration. This check on the appointments ensures that no one completely unsuitable can be chosen – for instance it will prevent anyone with an obvious vested interest or bias being chosen. Under the British system there is absolutely no formal constraint on Cabinet appointments.


However, there is an important post in the United States that, although not officially a part of the Cabinet, undoubtedly has Cabinet ranking in the running of the administration – the President’s Chief of Staff – and that is not subject to vetting. But in mentioning this position we are reminded of a tendency that has occurred in both the US and British executives of recent years and this is the development of an inner circle of confidents around the President/Prime Minister who are specially chosen by the leader. This is sometimes referred to in the Kingdom as the “kitchen cabinet”. A problem that it creates is that its members often serve to isolate the leader from the official cabinet and even from the country.


In the US, as well as Britain, the inner cabinet will importantly include a Press Officer or Press Secretary (a “spin Doctor”). In the US neither the Chief of Staff nor the Press Secretary is approved by Congress and so these individuals have a specially colluding role in the administration. This intimacy was a primary element in the TV drama, the West Wing, where the sense of the President’s inner circle struggling to control “outside” political forces was a major theme. The role of the Chief of Staff and the Press Officer, complete with subordinates was vividly portrayed and the viewer was invited to see the functioning of the US polity from the point of view of this small but powerful group of people. The dramatic implications provided by the contradiction between their remove from the democratic polity and their enormous influence over the democratic office of President were explored.


In Britain the inner “kitchen” cabinet has never been portrayed in such a flattering light, and the various Press Officers from Margaret Thatcher’s Bernard Ingham to Tony Blair’s Alistair Campbell have always enjoyed a suspect reputation owing to the perception that they have far too much power. There is increasing resentment that they are used to make public announcements so bypassing the traditional role of parliament.


The emergence of these inner cabinets with figures of undue power and influence poses a question for the future of Cabinet government both here and in America. There is no easy answer as politicians have had their own coteries as long as there have been politicians and it is human nature to want to surround oneself with trusted people to advise and influence. But we should at least be able to guard against the inner cabinet being used to bypass accepted constitutional procedures – a feature that we have seen increasingly in Britain.


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……. …….until next week