Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), nominated by President Obama to be Secretary of Commerce, has announced that he will not be voting on the stimulus bill or other legislation while his nomination is pending. This decision has been criticized, as the linked article suggests: “Gregg’s decision to recuse himself from voting is bound to raise questions about why he is remaining in office if he won’t perform such an essential duty of a senator — voting on legislation. It also may raise questions about whether he is seeking to avoid putting himself in the embarrassing position of voting against Obama’s top economic priority.”
I would suggest that the criticism is misplaced. It is true that Senate rules do not prohibit Gregg from voting. Senate Rule 37(4) provides that “[n]o Member, officer, or employee shall knowingly use his official position to introduce or aid the progress or passage of legislation, a principal purpose of which is to further only his pecuniary interest, only the pecuniary interest of his immediate family, or only the pecuniary interest of a limited class of persons or enterprises, when he, or his immediate family, or enterprises controlled by them, are members of the affected class.” This very limited restriction is not applicable to Gregg’s (or possibly any) situation.
On the other hand, Gregg clearly has a serious conflict of interest with respect to voting on the stimulus bill or any other legislation that is a high priority for the President, his prospective boss and employer. As the Senate Ethics Manual notes, “because of the unique nature of their responsibilities to the Senate, including the influence which they exercise over the legislative process, and because all their actions are open to public scrutiny, Members and employees seeking future employment are under a substantial obligation to avoid not only an actual conflict of interest, but also the appearance of a conflict between their duties to the Senate and the interests of the prospective employers with whom they are negotiating.” The Manual goes on to state flatly that “[i]t would be improper to permit the prospect of future employment to influence official actions.”
These strictures are aimed primarily, if not exclusively, at prospective private employment. The conflict of interest is no less, however, where the prospective employment is in the executive branch. At least this was the view of the Framers of the Constitution, who, while placing no limitation on ability of a Member of Congress to be employed in either the private sector or state government, provided that “no Person holding any Office under the
The Incompatible Offices Clause does not, by its literal terms, prevent Gregg from serving in the Senate and voting on legislation while his nomination is pending. Nevertheless, the danger of executive influence and the appearance and/or reality of a conflict of interest is just as great, or very nearly so. No matter how much Gregg attempts to be independent and objective in judging the merits of the stimulus bill, for example, it would seem virtually impossible for him to put entirely to one side the fact that he is about to join the cabinet of the President for whom this bill is the most important domestic priority.
In a perfect world, perhaps, Gregg would decline to accept the nomination as Secretary of Commerce on the grounds that he is ineligible for that position under the Emoluments Clause (see “Is Hillary Clinton Unconstitutional?”). Gregg, like his fellow members of Congress, apparently has little interest in following the letter of the Constitution in that regard, but his recusal is at least an attempt to comply with its spirit.