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Clearing the Bench: The Perils of Appointing Politicians to the Cabinet

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 December 2023

Michigan State University
Fordham University
Duke University


This article provides an analysis of the potential danger to a president’s policy agenda that comes from appointing a sitting elected official to the cabinet. We present historical data on cabinet secretaries since the founding and demonstrate that concerns about seats falling to the other party following the appointment of an elected official to the cabinet date back at least to Martin Van Buren’s establishment of the first American mass political party in 1828. We then focus on the post-Seventeenth Amendment cabinet and show that almost 30 percent of cabinet secretaries in this era who were elected officials at the time of their appointment left seats that flipped to the other party by the next regular general election. We conclude by discussing how our results compare with Alexander Hamilton, Martin Van Buren, and Woodrow Wilson’s differing views on the cabinet and the implications for the president’s policy agenda.

© Donald Critchlow and Cambridge University Press, 2023

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We would like to thank John Elliott, Matt Caverly, John Fortier, John Aldrich, Simon Hoellerbauer, Ian Ostrander, Michele Hoyman, attendees at the 2017 Northeastern Political Science Association, and reviewers and editors for helpful feedback on our paper. We would also like to thank Michael Dawson and J. Miles Coleman for help in locating some of the data we collected.



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