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Congress and the Cabinet

What would you give to hear Secretary Ickes in a debate with Hamilton Fish on the floor of Congress? Or Howard Smith badgering Secretary Perkins? Or a full-dress exchange between Senator Wheeler and Secretary Cordell Hull on the Moscow Pact? These open-up vistas which are not beyond the bounds-of possibility. For the recent formal-appearance of Secretary Hull before both Houses on his return from Moscow has brought once more to public attention the old and ever new proposal that members of the Cabinet appear before Congress to answer questions and take part in debate on them.

'The idea is generally known as the Pendleton plan after Representative (later Senator) Pendleton of Ohio who first introduced it in 1864. It has since cropped up every ten or fifteen years, been warmly supported by such men as President Garfield when he was a congressman, and President Taft, and been invariably rejected or ignored by Congress itself.

The case for it is in many respects persuasive. Congress and the executive departments are generally separated by a chasm of outlook and interest. One is elective, the other, appointive; one represents local viewpoints, the other, national; one wants to get things aired, the other wants to get them done; one has access to the people, the other has information. Today more than ever, with the tasks of government growing more complex and technical, the focus of government has-shifted to the executive. Since many congressmen feel frustrated and out of touch with things, they tend to wreak their frustrations on bills which the President supports, and theyrip their way through the non-military appropriations for essential domestic tasks and social services like a Texas cyclone.

It is argued that simply by changing its rules, and without the need for a constitutional amendment Congress could remedy much of this. For example, when a group of Senators made the hard trip around the far-flung American battlefronts, and came back with notes and queries that showed they had been a group of innocents abroad. Congress rushed into secret session to hear them, accusations were hurled, dramatic press conferences were held. Why could not the Senators simply have put their queries about Lend-Lease, the OWI, postwar air channels and the Siberian bases to the appropriate Cabinet members andagency heads, and allowed them to debate their answers in Congress? In short, why can we not build a bridge across the chasm that separates Congress from the executive departments? But the proposal raises difficulties that have not thus far been sufficiently discussed. It would mean putting a premium on a certain type of Cabinet officer or agency head—the kind that can do well in a dramatic debate, or eke the kind that stands in well with Congress. Since the best administrative abilities are not likely to be either forensic or political, we should run the danger of sacrificing a good administrator to a histrionic figure, or a liberal technician to a congressional fellow traveler. The President might soon find himself selecting most of his Cabinet officers from Congress; and the Cabinet heads might find themselves using their dramatic congressional appearances as a forum .for their presidential hopes. Thus the process that spanned the chasm between the Cabinet and Congress might create a chasm between the President and This whole administrative mechanism. There is also the danger—perhaps a lesser lone—that the plan might represent an enormous time waste. The experience of the French with their parliamentary interpellations and of the House of Commons with its "question hour," indicates that the questions put by legislators are numerous and often trivial. Today they consume the time of committee members but not of Congress as a whole, of minor administrators but not generally of Cabinet officials.

To raise these objections does not mean to reject the plan. We do it mainly to point out, as Harold Laski has done at length in his first rate study, "The American Presidency", that this change would not mean merely a gloss on the surface of our government. It would mean a far-reaching change, which would take from the President much of the control he now exercises over the administrative process, and shift the focus of government much further to Congress, it would introduce some aspects of the Cabinet-system, without the organic quality and the centering or responsibility which makes the Cabinet system work.

On the whole it would seem to us best to make greater efforts to improve our present system of presidential government. There must be better and more frequent contacts between the executive officers and Congress. There must be clearer channels of information running from the executive to congressmen and to congressional committees. It is better to work along these lines than to make a change whose consequences are not intended.

This article originally ran in the November 29, 1943 issue of the magazine.