Should Voters Elect Cabinet Members?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
What happens if the captain of the team doesn’t pick good players?
By Shannon Sims
Cid Gomes probably lacked the qualifications to serve as a school principal, but there he was, this past January, flush with his latest political accomplishment: minister of education in Brazil, the world’s fifth-most-populous country. Brazilians all over decried the appointment as yet another instance of bone-throwing and backroom deals.
But when it comes to Cabinet appointments, Dilma Rousseff’s embattled regime hardly has the monopoly on bad decision-making. Throughout the democratic world, a president’s Cabinet functions as a no-man’s land for democracy, a place where log-rolling comes first and the needs of the citizens come second. Which brings us to our proposal: Cabinet members should be elected instead of appointed by the executive. Voters would choose better than presidents.
Some politicians have tried to institute a more representative Cabinet.
Why? For chief executives, the incentive is too high to use ministerial posts as pawns in some political game — to bestow a favor, or quiet a rival party, as was the case with Gomes — and appoint candidates who simply aren’t qualified. One egregious consequence of the Cabinet system: Many ministers have literally zero background in their assigned fields. A recent study of Cabinet members’ experience found that in Argentina, seven Cabinet members had no college education.
To be sure, there are good reasons that democracies, historically, have granted presidents the power to choose Cabinet members. “We want presidents to have their team in place to help them,” explains Gerard Magliocca, of Indiana University School of Law. Managing a national government could be difficult otherwise, warns Matthew Kerby, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa who has written on the topic. Corralling “a disparate group of ministers who owe their loyalty and their position not to him or her, but to the voters who elected them in” could be a recipe for utter dysfunction. Like herding cats, but worse.
That hasn’t stopped some politicians from trying to institute a more representative Cabinet. In Switzerland, where the government has only seven Cabinet members, parliament member Hans Fehr has been arguing for a while that voters should elect them. Such a system would help his small, far-right party by giving it a shot at a Cabinet post. But the main point, Fehr argues, is that direct election of Cabinet members would make “democracy better.” Ministers would be “directly responsible to the voters.” Fehr adds that just as the voters elect ministers, so they could impeach them.
As it is, the appointments system can have its own, dizzyingly inefficient manner of ejecting unsatisfactory Cabinet members. In Brazil, the revolving door has accelerated in recent months. Two months after taking up his post, Minister Gomes went off on the floor of the Parliament, accusing various officials of corruption. The result? Gomes was promptly fired. On April 6, Rousseff appointed a new education minister, Renato Janine Ribeiro. And while no one knows how long he’ll hold onto his job — including him — at least he understands Brazil’s university system: He’s a professor.
You might not get to elect your Cabinet members, but your comment definitely counts.
- Shannon Sims, Based in Brazil, Shannon is OZY’s Latin American correspondent and legal voice. In her many lives, she’s taught elementary school in Harlem, managed a hotel in Italy and researched forests in Brazil. A University of Texas law grad raised in Louisiana, she prefers cowboy boots over heels, and hot sauce over everything. Follow Shannon Sims on Twitter Follow Shannon Sims on FacebookContact Shannon Sims