Role of Department Heads
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
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
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
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.