Guest Essayist: Gary McCaleb, Senior Counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund

As a constitutional attorney asked to chat a bit about Federalist No. 76, I certainly did not expect to use knowledge gained as a U.S. Navy sailor in the 1970s from a book published in 1890 about history from the 1660s to help me explain a constitutional commentary drafted in 1788—but I will.

Federalist No. 76 recognizes that every government needs a stable of civil servants, who in turn must be secured for service with reasonable dispatch and with some assurance of quality.  The paper plays off a consistent theme of our founding era—to balance each grant of authority (and concomitant power) with some restraint on the authority.

In a nutshell, Hamilton takes the familiar balancing of powers among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches down a notch as he considers how to expeditiously staff the government with high quality persons, while restraining the appointment power lest it be used by the President to untoward ends.

Hamilton broadly considers the benefits and risks of vesting the appointment power in a single person; or in a larger group of representatives, or in some mix of the two.  The idea of a purely democratic appointment system he rejected out of hand—the distances and slow communications of the time precluded that option.  And while there is great efficiency in granting one person the power to appoint, that vests too great a power to shape the government in the image of one man.

The Constitution, Hamilton notes, splits the difference—the President has complete discretion to nominate, subject only to the “advice and consent” of the Senate.  This secures the efficiency of centralizing these key selections, while providing a modicum of restraint via the Senate’s review.

As Hamilton predicted—and subsequent practice confirms—the Senate seldom shoots down a Presidential nominee, for many reasons:  Most nominations are simply uncontroversial, so review is superfluous.  And often, nominees intended to advance an agenda don’t always do so once in office; uncertainty about future performance complicates the review.  Worse, for the controversial nominations, the Senate cannot be sure that refusing consent won’t lead to an even less palatable nominee the next time around.

Thus, Hamilton must answer the question:  “To what purpose then require the co-operation of the Senate?”  His answer:  “[T]hat the necessity of their concurrence would have a powerful, though, in general, a silent operation.”  In short, Hamilton sees the potential for Senatorial brouhaha, or even denial of consent, as a political risk that by its very presence tempers the discretion of the Chief Executive.

What Hamilton propounds in political terms sounds like a peaceful application of classic concept of naval warfare—an idea called the “fleet in being.”

That concept was popularized in a seminal work on global military strategy, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, published in 1890.  In assessing how sea power impacted the matters of man, Mahan found that political and military decisions could be profoundly impacted by the mere presence of a small but competent naval force.

The classic example arose in World War I, when the small German High Sea Fleet did little but sit in port—yet the constant threat that it may sally forth and salvo forced the British to commit significant combat resources to contain the German fleet in its harbor.  As warfare modernized and combined arms became the norm, the “fleet in being” was renamed “force in being,” and the principle applied more widely.

Thus, the mere fact that the Senate must review the nominations serves as some check to the President’s fearsomely strong nomination power—even if the votes against the President “never leave port,” so to speak.

Senate review means that with each nomination that proves dubious, contentious, or both, the President must spend his political capital.  When the highest profile nominations come, he must weigh the risk of pushing his agenda with the risk of having his ambitions die in the fire of a dissenting Senate, or expending the last of his capital in the fight.  Given the politicization and profile of the most important nominations (so much so that a new verb—“borking”—came into the American lexicon), the wise President will pull back from fringe politics.

The balance is imperfect, but that was likely intentional—to grant greater review power would have frustrated every administration’s efforts to staff the government.  While this undoubtedly permits a degree of undue partisanship in the process, the ultimate impact is mitigated by the higher level separation of powers.  In sum, the system performed very much as predicted, which affirms the wisdom of our Founders in drafting the Constitution.

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

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