How the President’s Cabinet and Departments in Washington, D.C., Work

Excerpted from How Washington Actually Works For Dummies

The President’s Cabinet in Washington, D.C., includes the Vice President and the heads of 15 executive departments: the secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Attorney General, who heads the Department of Justice.

In addition, in every administration a small number of other senior officials are normally accorded Cabinet rank and attend Cabinet meetings as principals.

In the Obama administration, these include the White House Chief of Staff, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Trade Representative, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, and the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

The executive departments are the bread and butter of the federal bureaucracy. They employ the majority of federal workers and account for most discretionary spending.

George Washington’s administration had only three departments: State, Treasury, and War. Each of these three still exists today, although the War Department became the Department of Defense in the late 1940s.

Other departments have been added by Congress as the need arose, and the addition of new executive departments accelerated during the 20th century. The most recently minted organization, the Department of Homeland Security, was established in 2002 in response to the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

All large and complicated organizations have a degree of arbitrariness in their structure, and the federal bureaucracy is no different. Some federal organizations take pride in their diverse composition: the Department of the Interior actually describes itself as the “Department of Everything Else,” considering its daily responsibilities include maintaining our national parks, detecting earthquakes, leasing land for oil drilling, and delivering services to 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Turf battles are another common feature of any bureaucratic landscape, especially when multiple departments are responsible for almost the same issues and when budgetary imbalances curtail or enhance a particular department’s influence.

Who’s really in charge of ensuring domestic safety and security? The Department of Homeland Security would seem the obvious answer, but several national law enforcement agencies, not the least of which is the FBI, are administered by the Department of Justice.

And who really drives U.S. foreign policy when, as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates often said, the Defense Department has more members in its military bands than the State Department has Foreign Service officers?

Each federal agency usually has a core constituency of special interests: The Commerce Department is responsive to the interests of corporate America, and the AFL-CIO is particularly strong in the Department of Labor, for example.

The Interior Department’s political base of support is in the West, where the big federal land holdings and national parks loom large. And the relationship between the Defense Department and the defense industry was famously described as the “military-industrial complex” in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address in 1961.

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