Is Hillary Clinton Unconstitutional?

So Hillary Clinton is “on track” to be the nation’s top diplomat, huh?  Well, setting aside the wisdom of that decision – forget ideology; does she have both foreign policy expertise and a good working relationship with the President-elect? – it appears that there may be genuine constitutional problems with her expected nomination.  To wit, Article I, section 6, clause 2 reads:

No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been encreased [sic] during such time…

That is, under this “Emoluments Clause,” members of Congress are expressly forbidden to take any appointed position within the government which was created or whose pay has been increased during their current term in office.  Now, a January 2008 executive order, promulgated in accordance with a statute from the 1990s that addressed cost of living adjustments for certain federal officials, raised the Secretary of State’s salary, thus constitutionally prohibiting any then-serving senator who remains in office from taking charge of Foggy Bottom. (Sen. Clinton’s current term began in January 2007 and expires in January 2013.) 

Not surprisingly, this is not the first time such a conflict has arisen in executive appointments and nominations and, equally not surprisingly, Congress has on several occasions legislated around it:  To enable one of its own to assume executive office, Congress simply decreases the pay of that office to the pre-raise level for the full tenure of that specific appointee.

Although this legerdemain has been around since at least the Taft Administration – and was most recently used when President Clinton picked Sen. Lloyd Bentsen to be his Treasury Secretary – the move is called the “Saxbe Fix” after Sen. William Saxbe, whom President Nixon nominated for Attorney General.

The Saxbe Fix is not uncontroversial.  UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, for example, cites Steptoe and Johnson partner John O’Connor’s objection that the Saxbe Fix is inadequate for circumventing the Emoluments Clause.  To O’Connor’s thinking, while simply lowering the salary – resulting in no “net” increase – does prevent the nominee from directly benefiting from a vote he or she cast, it would not substantively address the Framers’ intent to limit the size and scope of the federal government. That is, if, contrary to the Emoluments Clause’s terms, Congress can restore its Members’ eligibility for appointment by reducing the office’s salary, the Emoluments Clause ceases to serve its function as providing a constitutional disincentive for regular increases in the salaries of federal offices.

One could also argue that in this specific case, Congress did not act to increase anybody’s salary; it was that long-ago Congress that even gave that option to the president – and only in the form of an aross-the-board COLA, not some shady or opportunistic self-dealing.  But, of course, if we are to follow the text of the Constitution, there is no exception for offices “the Emoluments whereof shall have been encreased” by a non-shady COLA granted via statutorily-enabled executive order.

Whether anyone could challenge Hillary Clinton’s appointment in the courts is another matter.  Perhaps someone denied a passport, or who has had some other adverse action done to them by a Clinton-led State Department, would have standing to sue.  In any event, in this time of constitutionally questionable bailouts, it cannot hurt to be vigilant even about the most obscure text from our nation’s governing document.

Much more on this issue can be found in Eugene’s fascinating post here.