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More Fun with House Guests: Admitting Cabinet Officials to a Seat in Congress

A recent post by Professor Gerard Magliocca brought to my attention a matter which sheds further light on how the House of Representatives has viewed participation by non-members in its proceedings. In 1864, a House select committee favorably reported a bill providing that the heads of the Executive Departments “shall be entitled to occupy seats on the floor of the House of Representatives, with the right to participate in debate upon matters relating to the business of their respective departments, under such rules as may be prescribed by the House.”

This proposal was inspired at least in part by Justice Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution.  In a passage quoted at some length by the House committee, Story commented: “If it would not have been safe to trust the heads of departments, as representatives, to the choice of the people as their constituents, it would have been at least some gain to have allowed them seats, like territorial delegates, in the House of Representatives, where they might freely debate, without a title to vote.”

The House report reflects the same view of participation by non-members as won the day during the debate over the admission of James White seventy years earlier. The report states:

The committee entertains no doubt of the power of Congress to pass this resolution. . . . [M]embers of the Cabinet do not by this resolution become members of the House; nor are they invested with any of the powers belonging to members, except to enter on the floor and to participate to a limited extent in debate. The right of each house to admit persons, not members, on its floor, and to allow them to debate any measure which may be pending, is too clear for argument. . . . It is exercised at every session when by resolution a contestant is allowed the privileges of the floor, and the right to debate the questions involved in the contest. It is exercised whenever action is had under the provisions of the general law of 1818, taken from the provisions of each special law for the organization of a Territory, passed prior to that date, that delegates from Territories shall be elected “for the same term of two years for which members of the House of Representatives of the United States are elected, and in that House each of the said delegates shall have a seat with the right of debating, but not of voting.”

In other words, the House’s authority to admit non-members, either for a limited time and subject or to a seat that continues for the entire Congress, extends to all persons, not merely to territorial delegates. Just as the House concluded in the debate over James White’s admission, the limitation is not the credentials of the persons who can be so admitted, but the fact that such persons may only debate, not vote.

As a side note, the legislation to admit cabinet members was never acted on by the full house, but later was introduced in the Senate. Many years later, as Professor Magliocca reports, President Taft picked up on the idea and included in his 1912 state of the union message a proposal that cabinet officers be provided seats in both the House and Senate. He recognized, though somewhat lamented, the fact that these officers could not vote:

Objection is made that the members of the administration having no vote could exercise no power on the floor of the House, and could not assume that attitude of authority and control which the English parliamentary Government have and which enables them to meet the responsibilities the English system thrusts upon them. I agree that in certain respects it would be more satisfactory if members of the Cabinet could at the same time be Members of both Houses, with voting power, but this is impossible under our system.

Needless to say, this proposal also never made it anywhere, although the closely related idea of providing a parliamentary-style “question time” in Congress for cabinet officials or even the president surfaces from time to time.

2 Comments

  1. Brian Keaney says:

    In 1864 the Civil War was being waged, and I think that may have had an influence as the Confederate government explicitly allowed cabinet members to speak on the floor of their Congress. From Article I Section 6 (2):

    But Congress may, by law, grant to the principal officer in each of the Executive Departments a seat upon the floor of either House, with the privilege of discussing any measures appertaining to his department.

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