The Odd Way a New US President Picks a Cabinet

American voters should have a say on the cabinet that a presidential candidate proposes to go into power with, writes Joe Lauria.

Biden supporters celebrate his victory without knowing who his Cabinet will be. (Flickr/ Ted Eytan)

By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News

Who a new president surrounds himself or herself with is a matter of extreme importance to the direction of the country, yet in the U.S. system it is only after a presidential election that voters get to see what a new president’s Cabinet will look like.

For an unfathomable reason, a challenger for the highest office is only obliged to disclose the proposed vice president, the most inconsequential post in a new administration.

After a new president is elected a bizarre game of leaking the names of candidates for powerful positions such as secretary of state, secretary of defense and national security adviser are leaked to the media. It is then up to interests groups, activists and members of the winning party to lobby privately and publicly for or against those names with no certainty of success.

The public is not privy to the closed-door horse trading that might be involved in these very consequential selections, which the voter has absolutely no say in.

For instance, Michele Flournoy was widely touted as Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of defense. Progressive groups argued strenuously against her. In the end, Biden chose former Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, a board member of a major military contractor. It’s a mystery what led to Biden choosing him over Flournoy. The press only reported the fact that Austin is African-American and Biden had already nominated several women for other posts.

Michael Morell, a former CIA deputy director, has been floated as Biden’s director of Central Intelligence, a pick that has upset some powerful Democrats.  Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a Senate Intelligence Committee member, has accused Morell of being a “torture apologist” and along with other Democratic members opposes his potential nomination. Yet Tom Vilsack, the president and lobbyist for the U.S. Dairy Export Council, known as Mr. Monsanto, was nominated by Biden for Agriculture Secretary, so far, with barely a peep.

Only Up to the Senate

Once a nomination is made, only the Senate, and not the voters, gets to approve most of these positions (not the influential national security adviser, however.)

As most Cabinet picks over the past couple of decades have been former government officials turned industry lobbyists, turned back through the revolving door into government (usually to supposedly regulate an industry he or she had just lobbied for), it is especially detrimental that voters have nothing to say about this farce of the American system.  

Voters might indeed be skeptical of a candidate’s choice of lobbyists to be put in charge of related government departments, if they only knew who the candidate’s cabinet picks were before the election.  Voters can factor in an incumbent’s existing cabinet, giving an unfair advantage to a challenger. 

Requiring a center-right Democrat like Biden to pick cabinet members ahead of time might have forced him to commit to progressive nominees in order to get the progressive vote.  As it is now, Biden only needed to allow the left-wing of the party to write parts of a meaningless party platform and make hollow promises to get their votes, and then deny them cabinet positions after election. 

Giving Voters a Say on the Cabinet  

American voters should have a say on the cabinet that a presidential candidate proposes to go into power with.  

In a parliamentary system, the party out of power designates elected MPs as “shadow” cabinet members so that when the time for an election comes, voters know who will occupy the most important positions if the opposition wins and forms a new government.

A parliamentary system has two more advantages. It separates the practical head of government from the mythical head of state. In the U.S. system it is dangerously combined, giving a U.S. president monarchial trappings of power (as well as the veto, and the pardon).  A parliamentary system also allows minor parties to win seats and have a say in power. 

But a parliamentary system in the United States is not needed when it comes to naming cabinet members. Candidates should be required to disclose their cabinet picks before the election so the voters can decide. 

The public would be advised and would have to give its consent, not only the Senate. Absent criminal or serious ethical misconduct the cabinet member should be required to serve at least two years, in a second term as well.

After all the people are not just choosing a president, who as Donald Trump has especially shown is most often not fully in charge, but an unelected, powerful administration that will have influence over decisions that can determine life or death in the U.S. and abroad.

Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former UN correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London and began his professional career as a stringer for The New York Times.  He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe

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14 comments for “The Odd Way a New US President Picks a Cabinet

  1. Hmmmmmm
    December 10, 2020 at 16:26

    Three letters, C, F and R. And there I was getting all excited that this article might go there… Literally everyone, including the president too in some cases, has been a member, or somehow linked to them (ie family or working for an entity headed by senior members of that group). I’m going from memory here but I think it’s been around for about 100 years and for a fairly significant proportion of that (at least the last 60-70 years) its been much the same story. Let’s not forget Wikileaks exposed Obama as having been essentially handed the list of cabinet members (by a banker no less), very soon after he was elected I think, or it might even have even been before he was even elected. The only real blip in that trend happened with Trump. You can really understand now why the MSM (they’re infested with them too) and all the usual MIC types were so desperate to get rid of him.

    I suppose this is not the main point of the article, more that the public should be given a choice, but for this and other reasons it will never happen…

  2. kiers
    December 10, 2020 at 15:29

    Biden may be the fall of the Weimar republic if he proves to be Obama-2020. Let’s hope the poindexter “cabinet” have been sufficiently “aware” what’s been going on in the country and with GOP ever moving right, and had enough bandwidth to look about once their noses were removed from their own narrow corrupt lobbies, and are able to remedy or balance the far right corruption. This is the last chance fer sure. Open gun waving, Open racism. Open cruelty. Open main stream media lies. If they’re just gonna “hump the flag” and carry on as Showbama would….then ……

  3. Tarry Northern
    December 9, 2020 at 15:44

    Since the US is the “most powerful nation”, and the “richest”, and has “the world’s most powerful military”, and every other country must conduct business in the US dollar, and the US decides which form of government is acceptable in other nations, and does foment wars, coups, civil wars, assassinations, genocide, and all manner of death, destruction, and mayhem on countries deemed “enemies”, or “a threat to our national interests”,  and the US has such influence over everybody and everything, then all of the people in the world should vote in US elections.  The senate should be abolished, since it functions solely for the plutocracy.
    The rest of the world should “regime-change” the US.

    • kiers
      December 10, 2020 at 15:25

      True! But then the US would “play” (really, spin) that as “the world looks up to us” “city on a hill”. LOL.

    • Hank
      December 10, 2020 at 19:17

      Americans have a say on cabinet picks? Maybe they can do this after their votes are counted legally because as of now their votes in the election aren’t even guaranteed!

  4. E.A. Blair
    December 9, 2020 at 13:43

    American voters are notoriously bad at making choices in elections, and they’re lazy when it comes to knowing much about candidates for office. Do you really want an electorate that cast 70 million votes for a Trump to be voting on who’s going to advice the president? That’s what we need – Kim Kardashian as Sexretary uv Ejukashun.

    • Hank
      December 10, 2020 at 19:22

      Are you serious? Drink more Kool Aid. Why is it that Trump’s supporters are considered this or that but always in the negative? Look at it this way- his supporters, at least those who have an awareness of current events outside of what the Lying Mainstream Media “reports”, are fully aware and educated enough to realize the direction this nation was headed in after Obama’s 8-year administration and the pervious ones after Carter. They are ALL CIA controlled and geared to protect the interests of the powerful and wealthy. They ALL promote endless wars based on lies and half truths. Now tell me- is it THAT BAD to vote against these things when Trump said he would deal with them? Those that voted for Trump because of his “outsider” status are actually FAR MORE educated than anyone who would fall for someone as corrupted as Joe Biden! And when you throw in massive vote fraud it seems a CRITICAL MASS of Americans were behind a Trump landslide, something the Deep State cannot tolerate.

  5. Dave
    December 9, 2020 at 10:39

    At long last, one commentator has the temerity to mention one of the advantages of a parliamentary system of government: choosing cabinet ministers from among persons ELECTED to parliament, not arbitrarily selected from the populace at large. A parliamentary system is not a panacea, but it does have virtues not available in the gawdawful federal system inflicted upon Americans by a way-out-of-date Constitution. Elections do not necessarily have to be held at regular intervals…snap elections can take place, as well as a call for a completely new election. Prime ministers, in some nations, at least are subjected to public Q&A sessions at regular intervals. And as, usual, elections can be subject to gerrymandering and rotten-boroughs through political fiddling. Still, since our decrepit Constitution needs a bottom to top overhaul, changing USA to a parliamentary form of government is an option.

  6. vinnieoh
    December 9, 2020 at 10:27

    Completely logical and honest post script Joe.

    And of course the rebuttal from “the blob” is easily predicted. (aside: I consider “the blob” not to be just the D machine, but the whole of the political – or still apropos – MIC community.) That response goes something like this: “You knew who I was, yes you did, and I never promised any change in the thrust of US power. Since you knew who I was, who I am, my selections should not surprise you. Deal with it. Would you rather have Trump?”

    And so it goes.

    What I see of the most visible parliamentary government – Great Britain’s – does not inspire confidence. Captured and corrupted by wealthy powerful forces, just like our own government. Government in the West in this era has been twisted into an enabling arm of predation of those wealthy forces.

    I just read an article from The Hill laying out who in Congress might be for and against a waiver for the DefSec nominee. What a joke: it talks rather deftly about the desire for civilian control of the military, without stumbling over the elephant in the room that ANY pick for that position is going to be joined at the hip to the arms industry, including and especially the “civilian” front-runners. Others need not apply. We must have someone, you know, who is “fully in touch” with the problems of defense. Now I feel like I have to wash my mouth out with soap.

    “You knew who I was, yes you did: I’m the Senator from Mastercard, the savior and protector of the health insurance industry, a cold warrior throwback, and my greatest achievement is being a survivor of a treacherous environment sinking beneath its own corruption.”

    I apologize for all the negativity. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so demoralizing that a large portion of the dead-enders now believe we’re fated to a wild excursion into socialism. Good grief. I wish that were actually so. It is more likely we’ll be treated to a plastiform facsimile of “America Greatness.” Whatever that is.

    • Anne
      December 9, 2020 at 13:02

      Indeed vinnieoh, oh so indeed…in my comment I did not intend to indicate that the UK Parliament was a more honest establishment – f***ing hardly…But at one time, post war (NHS establishment period) there was a slightly more honest set up…well, sort of…The usual 1940s-50s equivalent (in the UK) of the 1%ers, i.e. the true controllers of the western world, the aristos, gentry and the City (has its own laws) actually managed to control much…There did not used to be so much $$$$ in UK politics. In fact, once TV got going, the stations – public or money making – had to, had to propagate, show what we called “Party Political Broadcasts.”

      Each party, in an election, had (I actually don’t know the parameters) the same amount of time on each channel (TV) to sell their position (they were all called Party Political Broadcasts, literally as a warning)…at no cost…so no space for “Lobbying,” “Interests.” No money, as in Baksheesh (so far as I’m aware), changing hands twixt interests (company, City etc…) and politicos – but this has also profoundly changed in GB too…

      Given how much effect these “cabinet” appointees have and how close to the “Swamp” they always are…Definitely, we the people should determine who these Bloody folks are – not the prez in waiting once we’ve been cut out of the picture…

  7. Anne
    December 9, 2020 at 09:58

    At the very least, Joe, at the very least. In a parliamentary system (as in the UK) the Cabinet has to be chosen from among the winning party’s MPs (not that the PM doesn’t often, at least of recent decades, have an unelected “advisor”), so at least they are Members of Parliament, voted in by their constituents…

    I would only suggest, after listening to some young, African American female voters on NPR days after Georgia’s count was heavily for Biden, that so-called progressives (whatever they are) would be as blinded by skin hue, sex over their support for a particular candidates cabinet choices and equally as unconcerned or ignorant (whether deliberately so or not) about those what those cabinet choices had actually done, whom they had worked for, what their ethics, morals, interests were prior to being selected…. Those young women whooped with joy at the prospect of Harris as VP simply based on externalities. Her really living record as DA, her position on Palestinians…of zero concern to them.

    Horrifyingly indicative of the significance of surface and the utter lack of the importance of facts.

  8. Vera Gottlieb
    December 9, 2020 at 09:52

    And prolong the bickering between parties/people even more??? With all the lawsuits that would be filed, no time to run the government.

  9. bob browning
    December 9, 2020 at 09:30

    I’d say the DC establishment ” knows” , all but a handshake, who all the players will be. The “leaks” and dramatic debate is theater as in news cycle programming by hollywood/cia.

  10. Joe Lauria
    December 9, 2020 at 05:30

    Yes, I know “it will never happen,” but an argument must be made.

Comments are closed.