An Executive Council? Let George Do It

This afternoon I gave the first in the Liberty Lecture series at Gunston Hall in Alexandria, George Mason’s former digs, and talked about why the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 did such a poor job with the Presidency. Among the more painful errors they committed was having each presidential elector vote for two candidates without designating one as president and one as vice-president, a structural error that loused up elections until the Twelfth Amendment was adopted in 1803.
Nor has the electoral college been a triumph even since the Twelfth Amendment, delivering three presidents who received fewer popular votes than their opponents — Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and G.W. Bush.
The delegates also failed to spell out the structures of the executive branch in anywhere near the detail that they provided for the Congress. Part of that failure, I became persuaded while working on The Summer of 1787, came from their confidence that George Washington would be the first president and would figure out a good way to handle the problems.
For me, this is most clear in the delegates’ failure to provide for a Cabinet, or Executive Council, or advisory body for the president. The delegates spent a good deal of time and energy debating those options, but ultimately specified nothing of the sort.
Sure enough, as soon as he took office, Washington organized the heads of the four departments — the Secretaries of State, Treasury, and War, and the Attorney General — as his Cabinet.
The Cabinet has now grown to gargantuan proportions. There are now 15 Cabinet departments. (Can you name them? Here’s a helping hand.
Plus four more officers have Cabinet rank: Director of EPA, the U.S. Trade Representatives, the head of OMB, and the Director of National Drug Control Policy.
It’s hard to imagine that a group that size, with the attendant aides and support staff, can have a meeting that is at all productive. Maybe the Constitution should have been more specific.


  1. Matt on March 3, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    I like the idea that the president has flexibility in picking who he/she wants in meetings, as key advisors, etc. There are a lot of Cabinet-level offices today, but we have a lot more issues (and fifty times more people) as well. I like that we weren’t locked in for four departments and that’s it.
    More troubling for me is that the President has to deal with information overload to the extreme. Making informed decisions on all these issues – while being the face of the country, staging photo ops, fundraising/campaigning, etc – is a Herculean task. Mistakes are inevitable – or, worse, an unsophisticated, blanket enforcement of ideology rather than examining ideas and initiatives on a case-by-case basis.

  2. klkatz on March 5, 2008 at 11:44 pm

    great post.
    if only GW would have had the vison that Washington had in picking his cabinet.
    Washington undoubtedly created a necessary conflict with Jefferson and Hamilton and their opposing views on the banking system… on purpose.
    He believed the opposing viewes would help to come to the best decision.
    and we’re all aware of his precedent in stepping down after 8 years…
    what a leader Washington must have been. Truly a man of great stature in character and physique.

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