Henry Barrett Learned.

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Shall Cabinet Officers

Have Seats in

Congress ?

iflW^- By





Originally published as a letter in The Nation
Thursday, February 11, 1915, under the title !
"Relations of the Legislature and the Executive.' ;
Vol. 100, pp. 166-167.

Rumors are once more afloat that there
are designs on the part of certain mem-
bers of both the Senate and the House of
Representatives to bring: the executive into
closer relations with the law-making- bodies.
Though the subject is a very old one, it has
assumed a new interest. It will be recalled
that President Taft, shortly before he re-
tired from the Presidency, voiced a growing
impression that closer relations between the
Executive and the Legislature were not mere-
ly desirable, but that they could be arranged
in strict accord with the Constitution as it
exists and with certain early practices. These
views he expressed on at least two notable
occasions: first, in response to a toast on
the Presidency before the Lotos Club in New
York city on November 16, 1912, and again
in a special message to Congress on the fol-
lowing December 13. To the message Con-
gress paid no attention, although there was
some comment by the press of the country
on its specific recommendation. But the
practice of President Wilson in addressing
the Senate and House in joint session — thus
far on nine occasions in two annual and
seven special messages — has kept the gen-
eral problem alive. Especially in respect to
appropriations it has long been felt in some
quarters that if the several heads of depart-
ments, well informed as to special needs of
expending money, were themselves present
in the House of Representatives to answer
questions or to give direction to debate, they
might greatly promote the laudable process


towards national economy. In truth, should
a plan of introducing the secretariat into
Congress be formulated in the present ses-
sion with any degree of precision, it might,
in view of the present interest in the prob-
lem, bring forth important — perhaps perma-
nently beneficial — results.

"Constructive legislation, when successful,
is," in the words of President Wilson, "al-
ways the embodiment of convincing experi-
ence, and of the mature public opinion which
finally springs out of experience." Applying
this sentiment to the present problem even
before any clear effort to solve it has taken
shape in a bill before Congress, let us exam-
ine briefly the course of practices and a few
efforts in the past which can in any wise
aid towards its solution. In other words,
what experiences in the past are there which
should now be borne in mind?

The beginnings of the American secre-
tariat go back to the latter days of the Revo-
lution. In the year 1781, when there was
only a single-chambered Congress and no
provision for what would to-day be termed
a Chief Executive, three administrative head-
ships — all of them dependent on Congress —
were definitely established over Departments
of Finance, Foreign Affairs, and War. Three
men, Robert Morris, Robert R. Livingston,
and Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, were placed in
their charge. At the same period there were
also a postal organization under a Postmaster-
General, a Marine Department which, for want
of a special Secretary, was consigned to Mor-
ris's care, and a crude judicial establishment!
which was really headless, although an at-
tempt in the same year (February 16) to place
over it an Attorney-General had been made.
The system, under the circumstances, worked
haltingly: only two departments. Foreign Af-
fairs and War, and the postal organization

remained under single headships to 1789.
But it should not be forgotten that the Con-
gress summoned Morris, Livingston, and,
more frequently as time elapsed, John Jay
(Livingston's able successor) to appear be-
fore it for the purpose of obtaining informa-
tion and even guidance in the serious prob-
lems which then confronted it.

The transition from the Government of the
Confederation to the new Government under
the Constitution was necessarily to some ex-
tent a matter of slow adjustment and com-
promise. A new office, the Presidency, had
been created by the Convention of 1787, not
without careful regard to its independence
of legislative trammels, and yet to its ef-
fectiveness as an organ of administration
and direction. A set of administrative of-
ficials — the later Cabinet— was so arranged
that the President might, if he saw fit, sum-
mon it as a body. Both Washington and
John Adams, first successive occupants of
the new office, were, of course, aware of past
practices. Each of them on many occasions
and without hesitation addressed Senate and
House in joint sessions assembled. Accord-
ingly, they established a practice in this par-
ticular respect which, consciously abandoned
by President Jefferson in December, 1801,
was for the first time thereafter revived by
President Wilson when, on Tuesday, April
8, 1913, he chose to address the two houses
on the subject of the tariff.

There is to-day a prevalent popular im-
pression — all too commonly voiced by public
men and having the sanction of a series of
careless writers since the latter days of the
Civil War who have considered the historic
aspects of the problem — that it was the
"early practice" of both Senate and House
to admit to their sessions the President's of-
ficial advisers. Even as careful a writer as


Prof. Charles A. Beard speaks as though the
Cabinet sometimes appeared "in person . . .
to outline their policies." This impression
rests upon several instances of somewhat
different character which, whether taken sep-
arately or all together, give no real ground
for the term "practice." It is usually re-
called in this connection that the language
of the act of September 2, 1789, creating
the Treasury Department — ^language supposed
(but without proof) to have been first sug-
gested by Alexander Hamilton — provided
that the Secretary of the Treasury should
"make report and give information to either
branch of the Legislature in person or in
writing, as he may be required, respecting
all matters referred to him by the. Senate or
House ... or which shall appertain to
his office."

This, moreover, is the law to-day. But is
there, it may be asked, a single instance re-
corded in our annals of any Secretary of the
Treasury ever having been allowed to appear
before either Senate or House in person in
order to present a report or even to give in-
formation? In January, 1790, Hamilton vain-
ly tried to obtain consent of the House to
read to it his intricate "Report on Public
Credit." Again, in November, 1792, there
were those in the House who greatly desired
to hear on its floor both Hamilton and Knox
respecting the causes and possible conse-
quences of St. Clair's disastrous defeat by
the Indians. Nothing whatever came of this
but a refusal to permit them to appear. Look-
ing a little farther: the Senate summoned
John Jay before it on two occasions in the
summer of 1789, first on June 17 to give in-
formation with respect to a proposed appoint-
ment, and again on the following July 22
to inform Senators about a consular conven-

tion. Twice in August, 1789, Washington, ac-
companied by Secretary Knox, went before
the Senate, then in executive session, for
the definite purpose of helping to adjust a
treaty with the Choctaw Indians. The lat-
ter situation proved so very awkward for
everybody concerned that it seems once for
all to have established a precedent against
its repetition, although it need not be for-
gotten that the right of the President to come
to the Senate for personal consultation is
still recognized in the Rules of the Senate.
There may possibly have been a few other
incidents similar to some of the foregoing
during our early years under the Constitu-
tion. But they were all of them, it may be
confidently asserted, of such a negative na-
ture as to give no substantial ground for
the prevalent impression.

Since the beginnings of government under
the Constitution, various devices — liotably
a Speakership gradually acquiring powers
that only very recently had to be limited,
and an intricate and rather illogical system
of Congressional committees — ^were developed
largely for the purpose of coordinating legis-
lative effort with executive administration.
After quite fifty years of careful discussion
over the general problem — discussion which
received marked impetus and guidance
through the two efforts in both House and
Senate of the late George H. Pendleton, of
Ohio, and others to get two bills passed (first
in the House in 1864-1865, and again in the
Senate in 1879-1882) for the purpose of ob-
taining seats in Congress for the secretariat,
with privileges of debate — ^it may be reason-
ably asserted that public opinion has had am-
ple time to reach some degree of maturity on
the subject. Even as long ago asJL833j_Jus-
tice Story, in his "Commentaries," carefully
examined the problem before it had received
7 ■ ,

\a hearing in Congress, though it would
be going- farther than his discussion of ■ it^
warrants, to say — as has very recently been
said — that Story either urged or favored

/without much qualification the admission of

/ the secretariat to either house.

I The truth is that the matter remains to-

\ day what it has always been — a debatable
and undetermined issue. On the one side,
favoring admission, stand such names as ex-
President Taft, President Wilson, James A.
Garfield, James G. Blaine, John J. Ingalls,
John D. Long, Perry Belmont, and the late
Gamaliel Bradford. So far as President V\^il-
son is concerned, he revealed his position
first over thirty years ago in an article in
the Overland Monthly (January, 1884) ; and
he has not yet indicated in spoken or printed
word, so far as I am aware, any change.
On the other side are to be found such names
as Justin S. Morrill, Thomas B. Reed, Sam-
uel S. Cox, Judge M. Russell Thayer, Free-
man Snow, Hannis Taylor, A. Lawrence Low-
ell, and Hilary A. Herbert — all strongly op-
posed to any such measure. Accordingly, it
may be assumed that, if such a measure were
in the near future introduced into Congress,
whether with or without President Wilson's
recommendation, it would run no unobstruct-
ed course, for it has always been regarded as
striking at the very heart of our system of
government, and as calling for readjust-
ments out of accord with past practices and
akin to such practices as have long been as-
sociated with the British system of parlia-
mentary government.

That many improvements are to be intro-
duced in future into our system of govern-
ment, especially in the matter of closer rela-
tions between the Executive and the Legisla-
ture, no one can doubt who has followed the
evidence of .institutional progress within re-


cent years. __LQ_ji_J;Jiau.glitfu]^jg;ap^^^^
December in W£Lshiii^jon_be£QIia_lhe_-Ajner^
can Political Science Association, Dr. Wil-
liam F. Willoug'hby, former Treasurer of
Porto Ricd'"and'~" no\C 4^e^^ constitutional

adviser to the Chinese Republic, attempted
to examine this old subject from a present-
day sta,ndpoint. So far as the departments
are concerned, Mr. Willoughby deems it de-
sirable that Congress should reorg-anize its
committees in such a way as to relate them
carefully to the ten great departments. He
says : '""""*

Only as it does so will it be possible to make
the two systems articulate. Only as such
articulation is secured will it be possible to
make the two systems M^ork in harmony and
cooperation with each other. This means in
practice that each house of Cong-ress shall
have a system of committees corresponding
with approximate closeness to the system of
organization of tlie__Government. If this is
done, not only will responsibility and author-
ity be definitely located, but the two systems
will touch at all points, thus permitting of
close cooperative relations throughout.
Dr. Willoughby is frankly opposed to any
attempt to graft on to our system of gov-
ernment the alien parliamentary practices of
the British system, for the simple reason (as
he holds) that it could not be done with any
regard to our past development.

Our committee system is too deeply rooted
to be either ignored or easily modified.
Through it we have managed for years to
get ahead. We have had no "convincing ex-
perience" — to recur to President Wilson's
lang-uag-e — on the side of admitting- the secre-
tariat into Congress. Moreover, that mature
public opinion, which, in the eyes of Presi-
dent Wilson and other thoug-htful men, is
essential to constructive legislation, has thus
far given no unqualified or general support
to the plan of admitting- Cabinet officers t»
Congress. Henry Barrett Learnep

Washington, D. C, December 17, 1914.

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