Is Hillary Clinton Eligible to be Secretary of State? (Updated)

Aside from the issue of the wisdom of appointing Hillary Clinton Secretary of State, which I’ve discussed previously, there’s also the issue of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which states, “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 during such time ….”

Dave Schuler raised the issue during last week’s installment of OTB Radio and my instinct was that, since quite a number of Senators have been appointed to cabinet positions over the years, there must be some sort of workaround.   Eugene Volokh has an extensive discussion of the issue and isn’t so sure.

After a lengthy discussion of the precedents and possible interpretations, he decides that the resolution should be considered in light of three questions:

  1. the purpose of the Clause,
  2. the adjustment’s being a cost-of-living adjustment that in practice prevents a real-world decrease in pay rather than being a real-world increase (irrelevant to the purely textual analysis that would apply if the text were clear but possibly relevant if the text is ambiguous and we have to resort to determining the purpose of the Clause), and
  3. the Saxbe fix precedent, which dates back to then-President William Howard Taft and Secretary of State Philander C. Knox and has been reinforced by President Nixon and Saxbe, President Carter and Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, and President Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen, though it has been dissented from during the Reagan Administration, when the Administration’s conclusion that the Saxbe fix was unconstitutional apparently helped lead to the selection of Robert Bork (and then Douglas Ginsburg and finally Anthony Kennedy) in place of Senator Orrin Hatch.

That’s pretty much where my independent musings on the subject took me as well.

It seems to me that it would be absurd to apply the Clause in such a way as to exclude Clinton.  Clearly, its purpose was to prevent a conflict of interest between the branches and with a specific individual, wherein the salary was raised with the express intent of rewarding the soon-to-be appointee.

Indeed, read literally, it would preclude long-serving Senators from being sworn in as president.  I don’t believe the president’s salary has been increased (let alone encreased) in the four years since Obama was elected to the Senate; it has, though, since Clinton took office in 2001, much less since McCain first went to Congress in 1981.

Beyond that, since pay adjustments now occur mostly on an across-the-board fashion through automatic cost-of-living adjustments, the original thinking behind the Clause has been essentially obviated.

The genius of the Framers was that they mostly created a fluid, dynamic system with very broad rules.  Unlike most of the state constitutions and most overseas counterparts, they generally avoided legislating in the national charter.  That’s why it’s so short and why it has lasted so long with relatively little amendment.  The Emoluments Clause, the Natural Born Citizen Clause, and a handful of other examples, though, show the folly of addressing immediate grievances in a constitution.

UPDATE (Dave Schuler)

Please note that when I raised this issue last week I did so not in support of the idea but only to point out that the issue was bound to come up in the event of a Clinton appointment and, considering the more contentious character of our system today rather than when, say, Lloyd Bentsen was appointed and attitudes in at least some circles towards Sen. Clinton, it was almost certain to reach the courts.

UPDATE (Dave Schuler)

I’ve corrected the quotation of Eugene Volokh, above.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Law and the Courts, Political Theory, US Constitution, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kirk says:

    Come on doesn’t anyone read let alone understand the words in the USC?

    This simply prevents double dipping of Senator’s or Reps from serving in legislative and executive branch at the same time. It also prevents them from taking newly created posts or ones that pay more. Bottom line is it prevents patronage to buy votes.


    Article 1 – The Legislative Branch
    Section 6 – Compensation
    “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 increased during such time; and no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.”

  2. PD Shaw says:

    What’s most surprising is the belief that someone would have standing to sue. Recall that standing was denied to persons complaining that McCain and Obama were not “natural born citizens,” or that Bush/Cheney were not domiciled in separate states.

    Past practice has been for Congress to give standing to any person aggrieved by its Constitutional side-step. Why? Buck-passing? A desire to be ruled by Judges?

  3. PD Shaw says:

    BTW/ You’ve misquoted Volokh’s three questions, or more specifically omitted one question and repeated another question twice.

  4. LTC MD McDowell says:

    Amazing the high jinks people try, to keep the Courts involved in matter that they disagree with. For years the Republican Party has openly criticized frivolous lawsuits and championed tort reform, yet they hypocritically intervene in matters, IE Terry Sciavo, Bush v. Gore, etc. and other matters to fan the legal flames of cases that have no standing in the first place. I think it is time for the radicals of the GOP to ween themselves off of their diapers and engage in some serious toilet training. In other words, GROW UP!!!!

  5. Steven Pounders says:

    The answer to a frivolous grievance is a frivolous rebuttal. The article only applies when a salary is increased “during the Time for which he was elected”.

    Quite clearly, the Framers only intended this limitation for male senators. It doesn’t apply to Hillary.