May 13, 1800
The collection of art in the Capitol includes bronze and marble likenesses of senators who have resigned their Senate seats to accept cabinet posts. Why would a senator choose to leave the independence of the best elected legislative job in the world to become an appointed executive branch officer subject to the whims of a president?
The first incumbent senator to accept such an offer was Samuel Dexter, a Massachusetts Federalist. On May 13, 1800, President John Adams appointed him secretary of war. Since the days of Samuel Dexter, 44 incumbent senators have resigned for a cabinet seat. Andrew Jackson selected five incumbent senators, Abraham Lincoln three, and Grover Cleveland four. The most popular destinations have been the State Department with 14, Treasury with 10, Justice with eight, and Interior with six.
In the 19th century, when state legislatures were still electing senators, members took confidence in the possibility of returning with the next available Senate seat if they tired of their cabinet assignment. John Sherman of Ohio provides an example of that two-way street. In 1877, President Rutherford Hayes offered Sherman, who was chair of the Senate Finance Committee, the treasury department. After four years at treasury, Sherman decided to seek the Republican presidential nomination. He asked his former Ohio colleague, Representative James Garfield, to nominate him at the convention. Garfield gave a great speech. Unfortunately for Sherman, the eloquent Garfield won the nomination. Garfield went to the White House and Sherman returned to the Senate.
To answer the question of why anyone in their right mind would voluntarily leave the Senate for the cabinet, consider the following excerpt from the 1999 memoir of former Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt. “It has been said that it’s often easier getting into the U.S. Senate than getting out—at least getting out voluntarily. The difficulty in getting out seemed to increase in direct proportion to one’s stature in the Senate.” Laxalt continued, “Two examples come to mind. Ed Muskie of Maine was a powerhouse on Capitol Hill. In our frequent gym sessions in the late 1970s, Ed often confided to me that he would like to retire from the Senate, but pressures from his family, staff, and constituents kept him in.” When Laxalt later asked Muskie why he had accepted President Carter’s nomination as secretary of state, he responded, “Paul, have you never heard of a graceful exit?”
Years later, Laxalt approached Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who, to the consternation of many in the Senate, had accepted appointment as President Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary. At Bentsen’s farewell reception, Laxalt posed the question. “Lloyd, is this another Muskie ‘graceful exit’”? “‘Yes’, he said, ‘it sure is’.”