The Organization of Bureaucracy

Cabinet Departments

The cabinet is the collection of top-ranking advisors in the executive branch of government, particularly executive department secretaries.

Learning Objectives

Describe the constitutional origin of the Cabinet and the shape of its growth Washington's presidency

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Cabinet members are appointed by the president and serve as the president's primary advisors.
  • Cabinet members carry out numerous domestic and foreign affairs.
  • George Washington established the first cabinet by appointing four departmental leaders as his main advisors.

Key Terms

  • Cabinet: A governmental group composed of the most senior appointed officers of the executive branch of the federal government of the United States who are generally the heads of the federal executive departments.
  • executive department: An executive organ that serves at the disposal of the president and normally acts as an advisory body to the presidency.
  • line of succession: An ordered sequence of named people who would succeed to a particular office upon the death, resignation, or removal of the current occupant.

The Cabinet of the United States consists of the highest-ranking appointed officers in the executive branch of the federal government: the secretaries of each of the 15 executive departments. These Cabinet members preside over bureaucratic operations and serve as advisors to the president. All secretaries are directly accountable to the president, and they do not have the power to enforce any policy recommendations outside of their department.

The president nominates secretaries to their offices, and the Senate votes to confirm them. Secretaries are not subject to elections or term limits, but most turnover when a new political party wins the presidency.

Structure of the Cabinet Departments

Each of the Cabinet departments is organized with a similar hierarchical structure. At the top of each department is the secretary (in the Department of Justice, the highest office is called the "attorney general," but the role is parallel to that of the secretary of state, defense, etc.).

Beneath the secretary, each executive department has a deputy secretary. The deputy secretary advises and assists the secretary, and fills the Office of Secretary if it becomes vacant. The deputy secretary is nominated by the president, just as the secretary is.

Below the level of deputy secretary, departmental organization varies. Most departments have several under secretaries, who preside over specific branches of the organization rather than being accountable for the functioning of the entire department, as the secretary and deputy secretary are. Under secretaries are appointed by the president, but range in prestige depending on the size of the department they are employed in and the breadth of affairs they oversee.

Finally, each department has its own staff. Departmental staffs are not appointed by the president, but instead are hired by internal supervisors (such as under secretaries). Staff qualifications and duties range widely by department. For example, national park service employees are considered staff of the Department of the Interior, but some may work on policy in Washington, while others tend to conservation in Yellowstone. Likewise, military staff includes soldiers on active duty who are not administrative employees but are nonetheless under the purview of the Department of Defense.

Taken as a group, the executive departments employ over 4 million people and have an operating budget  of over $2.3 trillion.

History of the Cabinet

The first president of the United States, George Washington, established the tradition of having a cabinet of advisors. The U.S. Constitution specifically calls for the creation of executive departments, but it only addresses the leaders of executive departments to specify that as unelected officials they must answer to the president and do not have the power to enforce their recommendations. George Washington thus began the practice of having a formal cabinet of advisors when he appointed Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.

The three oldest executive departments are the Department of State, the Department of War, and the Treasury, all of which were established in 1789. The Department of War has since been subsumed by the Department of Defense, and many other executive departments have been formed.

The Line of Succession

The secretaries are formally in the line of presidential succession, after the vice president, speaker of the house, and president pro tempore of the Senate. In other words, if the president, vice president, speaker, and president pro temopre were all incapacitated by death, resignation, or impeachment, the Cabinet members would ascend to the Office of President in a predetermined order. The order of the departments, and the roles of the secretaries of each department, is as follows:

  • State: The Secretary of State oversees international relations.
  • Treasury: The Secretary of the Treasury is concerned with financial and monetary issues.
  • Defense: The Secretary of Defense supervises national defense and the armed forces.
  • Justice: The Attorney General is responsible for law enforcement.
  • Interior: The Secretary of the Interior oversees federal land and natural resource use.
  • Agriculture: The Secretary of Agriculture advises policy on food, farming, and agricultural trade.
  • Commerce: The Secretary of Commerce is concerned with economic growth.
  • Labor: The Secretary of Labor is responsible for occupational safety and workplace regulation.
  • Health and Human Services: The Secretary of Health and Human Services is charged with ensuring the health and well being of Americans.
  • Housing and Urban Development: The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development administers affordable housing and city planning.
  • Transportation: The Secretary of Transportation oversees transportation infrastructure and policies.
  • Energy: The Secretary of Energy is responsible for research into energy sources and the handling of nuclear material.
  • Education: The Secretary of Education oversees public schools.
  • Veterans Affairs: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs coordinates programs and benefits for veterans
  • Homeland Security: The Secretary of Homeland Security is responsible for domestic security measures

In addition to the secretaries of the established executive departments, there are some cabinet-level officers who are the heads of independent executive agencies. These agencies do not answer to the president directly and, therefore, there are no executive departments strictly speaking. Still, their heads are considered high ranking advisors to the president. These cabinet-level officers include the vice president, the chief of staff, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the trade representative, the ambassador to the United Nations, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, and the administrator of the Small Business Administration.


Department of Justice Seal: The attorney general is the head of the Department of Justice, and is a prominent cabinet member.

Independent Agencies

Independent executive agencies operate as regulatory and service agencies to oversee federal government functions.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between executive agencies and executive departments

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Executive agencies operate as services and/or regulatory agencies and are distinct because they exist independently from other executive departments.
  • In executive agencies, the president can terminate people’s positions only if there is proof of removal according to statutory provisions.
  • Most executive agencies need to have bipartisan membership and presidents cannot just remove and rehire for positions.

Key Terms

  • executive department: An executive organ that serves at the disposal of the president and normally acts as an advisory body to the presidency.
  • executive agency: A permanent or semi-permanent organization in the machinery of government that is responsible for the oversight and administration of specific functions.
  • enabling act: A piece of legislation by which a legislative body grants an entity which depends on it for authorization or legitimacy the power to take certain actions.

In the United States federal government, Congress and the President have the ability to delegate authority to independent executive agencies, sometimes called federal agencies or administrative agencies. These agencies are distinct from executive departments because they have some degree of independence from the President. In executive departments, department heads are nominated by the President and confirmed by Congress, and can be removed from their posts for political reasons. Department heads, who comprise the Cabinet, therefore often turn over when a new president is elected. For example, the Secretary of State is a high status position that a high ranking diplomat in the leading political party usually fills. Unlike in executive departments, the leaders of agencies can only be removed from office for corruption charges under statutory provisions. Even though the president appoints them, agency leadership is non-partisan, or independent from Presidential politics and election turn over.

The leaders of agencies often participate as members of commissions, boards, or councils with internal structures resembling tripartite government. That is, a single agency may "legislate" by producing regulations; "adjudicate" by resolving disputes between parties; and "enforce" by penalizing regulation violations. To illustrate this point, consider one independent agency — the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). The FCC oversees media in the United States. One notorious function of the FCC is to regulate decency on television. To carry out this function, the FCC sets regulations defining what television programming is decent and what is indecent; if a station is accused of violating these regulations, the complaint is brought to the FCC; if the FCC finds that the programming was a violation of regulations regarding decency, it may fine the station.

Other independent executive agencies include the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The CIA helps gather intelligence and provides national security assessments to policymakers in the United States. It acts as the primary human intelligence provider for the federal government. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration NASA, is a government agency responsible for the civilian space program as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. The EPA was created for the purpose of protecting human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress. EPA enforcement powers include fines, sanctions, and other measures.

The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly reference federal agencies. Instead, these agencies are generally justified by acts of Congress designed to manage delineated government functions, such as the maintenance of infrastructure and regulation of commerce. Congress passes statutes called enabling acts that define the scope of agencies' authority. Once created, agencies are considered part of the executive branch of government and are partly regulated by government parties. However, executive agencies have to remain nonpartisan.


Federal Communications Commission: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is one of many independent executive agencies.

Regulatory Commissions

Independent regulatory agencies create and enforce regulations to protect the public at large.

Learning Objectives

Use the work of the FDA as an example to describe the activity and mission of regulatory agencies more broadly

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Independent regulatory agencies are situated in the executive branch of the government but are not directly under the control of the President.
  • Regulatory agencies conduct investigations and audits to ensure that industries and organizations do not pose threats to public safety or well-being.
  • Regulatory agencies are intended to be transparent, such that they are accountable to public oversight and legal review.

Key Terms

  • regulatory agency: A public authority or government agency responsible for exercising autonomous authority over some area of human activity in a regulatory or supervisory capacity.
  • Food and Drug Administration: An agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, one of the United States federal executive departments, responsible for protecting and promoting public health.

A regulatory agency is a body in the U.S. government with the authority to exercise authority over some area of human activity in a supervisory capacity. An independent regulatory agency is separate from the other branches of the federal government. These agencies are within the purview of the executive branch of government, but are internally regulated rather than subject to the direct control of the President.

image Food and Drug Administration Regulations: The FDA sets regulations governing which drugs can be distributed over the counter and which require a prescription based on an expert evaluation of the drug's effects.

Regulatory agencies exist to supervise the administrative functions of organizations for the benefit of the public at large. To carry out this function, regulatory agencies are composed of experts in a specific policy area of administrative law, such as tax or health codes. Agencies may carry out investigations or audits to determine if organizations are adhering to federal regulations.

To better understand how independent regulatory agencies function, let us consider the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA's mission is to promote public health by regulating the production, distribution, and consumption of food and drugs. When a pharmaceutical company produces a new drug, the manufacturers must submit it to the FDA for approval. The FDA employs experts in pharmaceuticals and drug safety, who evaluate the potential benefits and consequences of the drug. Following reports on the safety of the drug, the FDA determines whether it can be distributed, to whom it can be distributed, and under what conditions it can be safely consumed. The FDA thus uses internal expertise to regulate the pharmaceutical industry.

Regulatory agencies are authorized to produce and enforce regulations by Congress, and are subject to Congressional and legal review as they carry out their functions. Congress may determine that regulatory agencies are obsolete, for example, and may therefore discontinue funding them. Similarly, Congress may choose to expand the authority of a regulatory agency in response to a perceived threat to public safety. Additionally, regulatory agencies are designed to be transparent, such that their decisions and activities are able to be evaluated by the public and by legal review boards.

Government Corporations

Government corporations are revenue generating enterprises that are legally distinct from but operated by the federal government.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between a government-owned corporation, a government-sponsored enterprise, and organizations chartered by the government that provide public services

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In many cases, the government owns a controlling share of a corporation's stock but does not directly operate the corporation.
  • Government-sponsored enterprises are financial services corporations that the government backs in order to provide low cost loans for economic development.
  • Government-acquired corporations are those companies that come under government control as a result of unpaid debts or unfulfilled contracts, which are usually returned to private sector control after a time.

Key Terms

  • government-owned corporation: A legal entity created by a government to undertake commercial activities on behalf of an owner government; their legal status varies from being a part of government to being a private enterprise in which the government holds a majority of stock.
  • government-sponsored enterprise: A group of financial services corporations created by Congress that are structured and regulated by the US government to enhance the availability and reduce the cost of credit to targeted borrowing sectors.
  • government corporation: a legal entity created by a government to undertake commercial activities on behalf of an owner government

A government-owned corporation, also known as a state -owned company, state enterprise, publicly owned corporation, or commercial government agency, is a legal entity created by a government to undertake commercial activities on behalf of the government. In some cases, government-owned corporations are considered part of the government, and are directly controlled by it. In other instances, government-owned corporations are similar to private enterprises except that the government is the majority stockholder. Government-owned agencies sometimes have public policy functions, but unlike other executive agencies, are primarily intended to bring in revenue.

In the United States, there is a specific subset of government-owned corporations known as government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs). GSEs are financial services corporations created by Congress to increase the availability of low cost credit to particular borrowing sectors. The first GSE in the United States was the Farm Credit System in 1916, which made loans available for agricultural expansion and development. Currently, the largest segment of GSEs operates in the mortgage borrowing segment. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the twelve Federal Home Loan Banks operate as independent corporations and provide loans for mortgages and real estate development. However, the government possesses sufficient stock to claim 79.9% ownership of the corporations, should it choose to do so.

In addition to the financial sector GSEs, the U.S. government has chartered corporations that are legally distinct from the government (unlike federal agencies) but that provide public services. These chartered corporations sometimes receive money from the federal government, but are largely responsible for generating their own revenue. Corporations in this category include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The National Park Foundation, and many others.

Lastly, the government sometimes controls government acquired corporations--corporations that were not chartered or created by the government, but which it comes to possess and operate. These corporations are usually controlled by the government only temporarily, often as the result of government seizure due to unpaid debts. For example, a delinquent taxpayer's property may be repossessed by the government. Government acquired corporations are generally sold at auction or returned to the original controller once debts are repaid.

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