The Cabinet is a team that was developed to counsel the president on various
issues and to operate the various executive departments within the national
government. The Cabinet consists of the heads of the executive departments who
serve as Cabinet members according to tradition. There is no Constitutional or
congressional mandate that requires Cabinet members to serve. However, Article
Two, Section Two of the U.S. Constitution does give the president the power to
seek the opinion of executive department officers.
The first executive departments established by Congress in 1789 were the Department of State, Department of Treasury, and Department of War. The attorney general handled the functions of what was later to become the Justice Department. The State Department deals with matters of international concern, and the Treasury Department is concerned with the nation's financial resources. The War Department was established to coordinate national defense, and the attorney general focuses on domestic legal issues.
The first Cabinet members serving under George Washington were Henry Knox,
who headed the War Department, Attorney General William Randolph (Justice
Department), Alexander Hamilton, who served as chief of the Treasury Department,
and Thomas Jefferson, who led the State Department.
As the nation and its needs grew, Congress, often at the request of the
president, established new departments to handle these needs. The first new
department that did not replace or incorporate some function of the four
original departments was the Department of Interior, which was established in
While the Cabinet's importance has varied depending on the administration, every U.S. president has had a Cabinet. Cabinets were very important in the administrations of Presidents George Bush (1989-1993) and Bill Clinton (1993-2001) but had less of a role in John F. Kennedy's administration. In fact, Kennedy was quoted as describing Cabinet meetings as a "waste of time."
There are currently 15 departments in the Cabinet. The newest of these is the
Department of Homeland Security, which was created after the September
11, 2001, attack on the United States. President George W. Bush signed the bill
creating the department on November 25, 2002, after the Senate approved the bill
with a 90-9 vote.
The Department of Homeland Security represents the largest reorganization of
the federal government since World War II. It combines intelligence analysis,
infrastructure protection, border security, and immigration, along with a
response and recovery division. The department has authority over many agencies
such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Coast Guard, the Border
Patrol, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Secret Service, and the
Transportation Security Administration.
Along with Homeland Security and the Departments of State, Treasury, and Justice, the other agencies that comprise the Cabinet are the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Defense (replaced the Department of War), Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Health and Human Services, Education, and Veteran's Affairs. These agencies cover a broad area of concerns that affect many aspects of Americans' lives.
The Department of Interior, established in 1849, manages the nation's natural resources including its wildlife and public lands. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which is part of the Interior Department, manages lands held in trust by the U.S. government for Native American tribes and Alaska natives. The BIA also provides education services to native students.
President Lincoln founded the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in
1862. Lincoln referred to the agency as the "people's department," because at
that time 48 percent of Americans were farmers. Today, farmers comprise less
than two percent of the U.S. population. In addition to aiding farmers and
managing farm programs, the USDA administers national food programs, such as the
school lunch, school breakfast, and food stamp programs. The USDA is also
responsible for ensuring the safety of the nation's meat, poultry, and eggs.
The Commerce Department was established as the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903. The agency is concerned with the regulation, development, and promotion of domestic and international trade. It is also home to the Bureau of the Census, which conducts a comprehensive survey of the nation's population every ten years.
The Labor Department was founded in 1913. Following a lengthy campaign by organized labor to get a "voice in the Cabinet," its function was separated from the Commerce Department. The Labor Department manages labor programs, assists collective bargaining efforts, and administers labor laws.
On July 26, 1947, President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act,
establishing the Department of Defense. It combined the War Department,
the Navy Department, and the Department of the Air Force. The goal of the new
department was to reduce rivalry among the service branches, which was believed
to have reduced military effectiveness during World War II. Today the Defense
Department is headquartered at the Pentagon and includes the Army, Air Force,
Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard (during wartime only). It also includes such
organizations as the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which directs housing and urban programs, was developed in 1966. HUD coordinates and administers programs that assist the development of housing and communities. It accomplishes this by making loans, insuring mortgages, and providing housing subsidies. It also promotes and enforces laws requiring equal opportunity in housing.
The Transportation Department was created in 1966 and administers the
nation's transportation programs. It includes agencies such as the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration. The Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard
were once part of the Transportation Department, but both agencies were
transferred to the new Department of Homeland Security in 2003.
The Energy Department is responsible for the nation's energy policy and nuclear safety. It oversees America's nuclear weapons program, nuclear reactor production for the U.S. Navy, radioactive waste disposal, domestic energy production, energy conservation and research. President Jimmy Carter proposed the department in 1977 in response to the 1973 energy crisis.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was originally
established as Health, Education, and Welfare. HHS was created when
President Jimmy Carter signed the Department of Education Organization Act into
law in 1979. The legislation split the Department of Health, Education, and
Welfare into the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department
of Education. Health and Human Services oversees the country's health and
social service programs. The Education Department directs the nation's education
President Ronald Reagan created the Department of Veteran's
Affairs (VA) in 1988 when he signed legislation elevating the Veteran's
Administration to Cabinet level rank. The VA directs veteran's aid programs,
which include health and medical services and educational programs.
The heads of each of the 15 departments form the Cabinet and members of the Cabinet meet as a group and individually with the president. They serve as his advisors on their respective department's area of concern. For example, the Defense and State Departments play a major role in advising the president on international policy. The Commerce Department may also be consulted on international issues, particularly when trade issues are involved.
In addition to the 15 regular Cabinet members, the president may include other top officials in the Cabinet sessions. Some presidents have invited the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the United Nations ambassador, or the White House Chief of Staff to Cabinet meetings. The vice president is often included in the Cabinet sessions as well.
While the Cabinet departments were developed to address specific needs, not
everyone in government believes that all of the departments are necessary. In
recent years, movements have developed to disband the Departments of Education,
Energy, and Commerce.
Each department is structured to suit its individual function. Usually there is a secretary that heads the agency and an under-secretary or deputy secretary and assistant secretaries that manage the various aspects of each department. The departments consist of various sub-units or agencies, which may be further divided into smaller working groups. Many agencies are set up geographically, with most of the work being done through regional or district offices or bureaus.
Department secretaries are appointed by the president and must be confirmed
by the Senate. Senate rejection of appointees is rare, but it has occurred. The
Senate rejected the appointment of John Tower, President George Bush's nominee
for defense secretary, after allegations of Tower's drinking and womanizing
resulted in a bitter debate. President Clinton's nominee for attorney general,
Zoe Baird, was forced to withdraw from consideration after it was discovered
that she had hired an illegal alien as her babysitter and failed to pay her
employee's social security taxes.
The president appoints the secretaries with the notion that they will represent him within the bureaucracy and operate the departments according to his wishes. He also relies on the secretaries for information and advice on policy matters from the department's area of interest.
In addition to advising the president, the department secretary is concerned
with promoting and protecting his department and budget with the White House,
Congress, other departments, the media, and the public. That focus can lead to a
conflict of interest when the secretary becomes more loyal to his department
than he is to the president. This conflict is called "going native," which means
the secretary is putting his department's goals ahead of the president's goals
for the country.
When a secretary "goes native," the president must turn to White House staff for political advice. A rivalry often develops between White House staff and department secretaries, with the staff supporting the president's proposals and the secretaries delaying and developing counter-proposals. The staff can hinder the secretaries' efforts by restricting access to the president. While some tension is anticipated, if a secretary expresses too much opposition to the White House goals, he may become an embarrassment to the president. In such cases, the president can call for the secretary's resignation.