It is rumored that at the first Cabinet meeting following a president’s re-election, a very unusual procedure transpires. After the reporters and flashbulbs leave the Cabinet meeting room, the president thanks his Cabinet for their service and then, either he or his chief of staff requests every Cabinet member’s resignation. The gesture is largely symbolic and simply reaffirms that Cabinet secretaries serve at the president’s pleasure. Everybody is supposed to come to work the next day. What is unique about this re-elected administration, however, is that not everybody is coming back.
These past two weeks have witnessed a flurry of activity within the Bush Administration. It all began on Nov. 9, when Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of Commerce Don Evans announced their intentions to resign. President Bush responded quickly, naming White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to replace Ashcroft, yet this week brought a second wave of Cabinet exodus.
Last Monday, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and — to the surprise of many — Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman all submitted their resignations. And it might not end there. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Treasury Secretary Jack Snow, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have all suggested they may have plans to leave the Bush administration at some point over the next four years.
There are several possible reasons for the Cabinet shake-up. Some may argue that the numerous changes in Cabinet secretaries is part of an effort to jump-start the new term and is reminiscent of the July 1979 Cabinet massacre when President Jimmy Carter, in a televised address to the nation, requested the resignations of all his Cabinet secretaries and ended up accepting five of them. Others, including Bush administration press secretary Scott McClellan, simply say that serving the president of the United States is an incredibly taxing experience and that Cabinet secretaries “burn out.” Perhaps the reasons for the resignations are based on performance: Colin Powell’s dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration’s policy on Iraq is well-known, Spencer Abraham has yet to usher an energy bill through Congress and Rod Paige has declared his intention to direct his focus to a “more personal task” he apparently finds just as taxing as running the Department of Education — remodeling his home in Houston.
However, regardless of the rationale behind the departures, the legislative implications regarding this Cabinet exodus are being largely ignored. On Tuesday, Nov. 2, the Republican Party was able to retain control of the White House and increase its margin of majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Over the last two weeks, many have expressed concern over the unbalanced nature of this government. With the House, Senate and presidency all thoroughly dominated by Republicans, many worry that this unity could potentially encourage the conservative leadership of the Republican Party to usher through radical, right-wing legislation.
However, the departure of six Cabinet secretaries, with potentially more resignations on the way, actually serves — at least temporarily — to nullify the Republican gains of this election. By resigning, Cabinet secretaries force President Bush to appoint replacements, all of whom require Senate confirmation. With a whopping six secretaries to replace, there is little doubt that some of the president’s nominees will be met with stiff opposition. Some Senate Democrats have already promised to question the secretary of state nominee, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, regarding the intelligence fiasco surrounding the Iraq War. With the Senate bogged down in these confirmations, President Bush may be forced to expend much of the political capital gained from November’s elections to usher through his nominees, thereby detracting from his ability to pursue a planned aggressive agenda.
Additionally, these numerous confirmation hearings may take considerable time. This time factor is particularly important, as it is widely held that a second-term president truly has only 18 to 24 months of effective authority before focus shifts to the next presidential election cycle and the sitting president is rendered a lame duck. By consuming the president’s political capital as well as docking his agenda for a potentially significant duration of time, appointing these new Cabinet secretaries could potentially hinder President Bush’s agenda.
These six resignations, therefore, are a gift to Democrats and those Americans opposed to the Republican domestic agenda. By shackling the conservative leviathan with these confirmation hearings, Democrats have a golden opportunity to limit the legislative consequences of their disastrous defeat two weeks ago. While there are certainly risks of appearing obstructionistic, Democrats can stave off an agenda of more tax breaks and rising deficits and ensure that this unbalanced conservative government recognizes the interests of all Americans, not just their narrow conservative base. I truly hope they take advantage of the opportunity.
Jonathan Menitove is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.