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Executive Branch Bureaucracy of the United States

Responsibilities of the Executive Departments

Role of Department Heads

The 15 executive departments, known collectively as the cabinet, make up the most senior level of federal bureaucracy in the executive branch. The department heads advise the president and work to carry out the administration policy agenda, though members of the Executive Office of the President have supplanted that role since the late 20th century.

An executive department is a cabinet-level agency of the government with a specific mission and set of responsibilities. The 15 departments represent the most senior level of the executive branch bureaucracy. The heads of all but one of these departments are titled "secretary"; the head of the Department of Justice is called the attorney general. Each department is headed by a member of the president's cabinet. These department heads are not the only members of the cabinet. Certain other executive branch positions, such as the president's national security advisor and the director of national intelligence, are also considered cabinet-level positions.

Specific executive departments are not named in the Constitution, though Article 2 does refer to there being "executive Departments" in general. However, the oldest departments had their origin in the two administrations of President George Washington (president 1789–97). These departments were State, Treasury, War (now called Defense), and Justice. The historical chronology is significant because it determines the order of presidential succession—that is, the sequence of government officials who replace the president if the president should die, resign, be removed from office, or become incapacitated. The order of succession is headed by the vice president. Next come the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate (a high-ranking senator). They are followed by the members of the cabinet in the order of their departments' founding. (Department of Justice is an exception. The office of attorney general was created by the Judiciary Act of 1789. The Department of Justice was not formed until 1870.)

Responsibilities of Cabinet Departments

Department Year Created General Responsibilities
Department of State 1789 Carries out U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy, working in such areas as arms control, international security, political affairs, civilian security, and promotion of democracy
Department of the Treasury 1789 Manages the government's finances and fiscal policy
Department of Defense1 1789 Oversees the country's military and civilian forces with the goals of ensuring national security
Department of Justice 1870 Investigates and prosecutes federal crimes in the areas of antitrust, civil rights, crime, tax, and environmental protection and operates federal prisons
Department of the Interior 1849 Manages and maintains federally owned lands and natural and cultural resources within the United States
Department of Agriculture 1862 Provides leadership on food, agriculture, nutrition, national forests and grasslands, and rural development
Department of Commerce2 1913 Promotes job creation and economic growth by ensuring fair trade, promoting technological development, and providing economic data
Department of Labor2 1913 Enforces federal labor law, promotes welfare of workers, oversees working conditions and unemployment insurance, and ensures freedom from employment discrimination
Department of Health and Human Services3 1980 Fosters the health of all Americans through advances in sciences related to public health and social services; oversees Medicare and Medicaid programs
Department of Housing and Urban Development 1965 Develops and implements national policy to address America's housing needs and oversees execution of fair housing laws
Department of Transportation 1967 Oversees several organizations that focus on transportation safety and development
Department of Energy 1977 Oversees national energy policy and nuclear energy resources
Department of Education3 1979 Oversees national education policy at all levels
Department of Veterans Affairs4 1989 Provides health care services and benefits programs to veterans
Department of Homeland Security 2002 Coordinates a national strategy to protect the country against terrorism and oversees immigration, customs, and border security

1. originally founded as the Department of War, founded in 1789; formed as the National Military Establishment in 1947; renamed as the Department of Defense and incorporating the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force in 1949; 2. originally part of the Department of Commerce and Labor, formed in 1903; 3. originally part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, created in 1953; 4. became part of the cabinet in 1989; originally formed in 1930

According to Article 2, Section 2, of the Constitution, the president has the power to appoint the heads of the executive departments, though they must be confirmed by the Senate. Traditionally, presidents name individuals who are highly regarded for their administrative expertise and political influence, though they may not have expertise in their department's area of activity. Once department heads are in office, presidents expect them to be advisors to carry out the administration's policy agenda. The degree to which a president relies on cabinet officers for advice depends greatly on the president's interest in the particular department's area of activity and the relationship with the particular department head. In the past, many presidents worked closely with the department heads. Since the Richard Nixon administration (1969–74), presidents have relied increasingly on the Executive Office of the President rather than the cabinet to implement desired policies. This shift in practice has created friction at times between cabinet secretaries and the White House.

Original Cabinet

The four original executive departments—the departments of state, treasury, defense, and justice—oversee vital central activities of the federal government, including foreign relations, government finances, national security, and the administration of justice.

The Department of State is the senior executive department. Its central role is to develop and implement the president's foreign policy. Thus, the secretary of state often employs the president's delegated authority—the power assigned to a subordinate individual or organization—to represent the United States in negotiations with other countries. The secretary of state is often involved in high-level negotiations with the heads of other governments or their foreign ministers. The core of the State Department is its foreign service officers, professionals who serve in American embassies and consulates in some 200 countries around the world. They work to ensure smooth business, cultural, and social interactions between Americans and the people of the country in which they work.

The Department of the Treasury deals with the country's finances through its many activities, such as collecting taxes, borrowing funds, and making payments. Like the Department of State, Treasury has a critical international dimension, since it takes a lead in working with foreign governments and international financial institutions. Efforts to identify and neutralize the financial networks that help to support terrorism are also part of Treasury's mandate.

The Department of Defense (DOD), with headquarters in the Pentagon, is the largest of the executive departments. The DOD consists of separate units for the army, navy, and air force. It also includes numerous agencies and offices, such as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency. The latter organization overlaps the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in gathering and interpreting intelligence impacting national security. Such overlapping is not unusual in the bureaucracy of the executive branch. The DOD's staff and budget are both huge, encompassing some 2 million members of the armed forces and civilian employees.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is the federal government's chief legal agency. Led by the attorney general, the DOJ is charged with enforcing the law, overseeing public safety, leading efforts to prevent and control crime, and securing the fair administration of justice for all citizens. This department's units include well-known agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Executive Departments Added to 1913

Added from the 1840s to the 1910s, the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, the Interior, and Labor focus on key areas of the economy or natural or human resources.

The Department of Agriculture is the federal government's primary agency for dealing with farming, forestry, and the food supply. The department's objectives include the enhancement of agricultural production, the protection of forest and grassland resources, and oversight of food safety. In addition, the Department of Agriculture is active in international programs to provide surplus food to foreign countries in need of food aid.

The Department of Commerce works to spur economic growth and encourages technological innovation. Like most executive departments, Commerce serves as an umbrella for various agencies. For example, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issues patents and trademarks. The U.S. Census Bureau oversees the census taken every 10 years. The census has critical importance for every American citizen, ranging from representation in the House of Representatives to federal budgetary allocations for the states. Like the Department of Agriculture, Commerce also has an international dimension; the department boosts American exports through involvement in international trade agreements.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) manages hundreds of millions of acres of public land encompassing some 20 percent of the surface area of the United States. The department's mission is to safeguard America's natural resources, conserve fish and wildlife, and oversee recreation for the public in the national parks and other protected areas. The DOI is also responsible for managing numerous dams and reservoirs. Within this department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs takes the lead in supervising federal relations with Native Americans and Alaska Natives. (The independent Office of Hawaiian Affairs oversees policy affecting Native Hawaiians.)

The purpose of the Department of Labor is to support the success and safety of workers and to assist job seekers and retirees. Many of the department's programs deal with workplace issues such as job safety, minimum hourly wages, unemployment insurance, and employment discrimination. This department's responsibilities require a huge amount of record keeping, a task that enables it to track trends and forecast changes in the national employment picture. Two major units within the Department of Labor are the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Executive Departments Added since the 1950s

Added from the 1950s to the early 21st century, the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security are involved in efforts to promote health and education; manage housing, transportation, and energy policies; provide benefits to veterans of the armed services; and oversee intelligence gathering, efforts against terrorism, and immigration policies.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is an executive department established in 2002, largely in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. DHS's mission is to safeguard the country's borders and to prevent terrorist attacks. DHS merged a number of different existing agencies and forces, including the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the U.S. Secret Service. Among its many responsibilities, DHS oversees the country's transportation infrastructure, as well as the enforcement of immigration laws.

The Department of Education, established in 1979, is charged with administering federal financial aid for students, collecting data on U.S. schools, and ensuring equal access to educational opportunity. It was originally part of the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), which was split into the departments of Education and Health and Human Services (HHS) and promotes health and health care. HHS is one of the largest executive departments. Its numerous subunits include the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid (CMS), which oversees health services for about a third of Americans. Medicare serves citizens 65 and older and those with disabilities; Medicaid funds health care for lower-income people. HHS also includes the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which conducts research and makes policy on various health issues. Another part of HHS is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an important agency in the field of public health. HHS also includes the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates safety and health standards in food and medicines.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) focuses on policies and programs related to housing. Formed in the 1960s as part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program, the department's mission is to improve communities and to oversee fair housing laws. HUD employs mortgage insurance and rent subsidy programs to promote home ownership for lower- and middle-income families. The department also oversees public housing and assistance for the homeless population.

The Department of Transportation, also added in the 1960s under the Great Society, supervises such means of transportation as highways, railroads, and aviation. It is responsible for the efficiency and safety of transportation. Among the agencies in this department are the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Department of Energy (DOE) was established in 1977 in response to the growing concern about the country's energy supply. The DOE's mission is to foster energy security, including the security of nuclear power.

The Department of Veterans Affairs became an executive department in 1989. It manages benefits programs for some 25 million veterans and their families. Such benefits include pensions, educational assistance, housing loans, life insurance, disability payments, medical care, and vocational rehabilitation.