Organization of the Executive Branch

Policy is not developed nor are all executive decisions made by the president alone. Presidents have come to rely on a large staff based in the White House to handle a wide range of administrative tasks from policymaking to speechwriting. The staff is loyal to the president, not to Congress or a government agency. Unchecked by the president, the White House staff can become a source of scandal. Watergate under President Nixon is a good example.

The Constitution gives practically no direction on the organization of the executive branch. It does mention "executive departments," which became the basis for the cabinet. While relying primarily on the White House staff for advice, a president turns to members of the cabinet for advice in their areas of expertise. In the main, however, cabinet secretaries are responsible for running the departments they head.

The Executive Office of the President

The Executive Office of the President (EOP) comprises four agencies that advise the president in key policy areas: the White House Office, the National Security Council, the Council of Economic Advisors, and the Office of Management and Budget.

The president's main advisers, often long-time personal friends or people who played a key role in the election, make up the White House Office. It includes the president's personal lawyer, press secretary, appointments secretary, and other support personnel. The most important position in this group is the chief of staff, who is responsible for seeing that the president's legislative goals are carried out by working with Congress on the legislative agenda.

The National Security Council (NSC), organized in 1947, deals with domestic, foreign, and military policies affecting security issues. By law, the NSC is composed of the president, vice president, secretary of defense, and secretary of state. Representatives of the intelligence and defense communities are also members. The president's national security advisor supervises the council's activities.

The Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) was created in 1946 to provide the president with information on economic policy. It is best known for predicting national economic trends.

The enormously complex task of preparing the federal budget for submission to Congress falls to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Originally established in the Treasury Department as the Bureau of the Budget, the OMB has had its powers expanded considerably since 1970. It is involved in drafting the president's legislative program and evaluating how effectively federal agencies use their appropriations.

The Executive Office of the President also includes the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of National AIDS Policy, the Office of National Drug Policy, and the Office of the United States Trade Representative. The president is free to establish new agencies within the EOP. George W. Bush created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the USA Freedom Corps.

The cabinet

George Washington appointed the first executive department heads in 1789. They were the attorney general, secretary of state, secretary of treasury, and secretary of war. As the scope and functions of the federal government grew, the number of executive departments increased. The heads of these departments, who all have the title secretary (except the attorney general of the U.S. Department of Justice), make up the core of the president's cabinet. From time to time, the cabinet departments have been reorganized, along with the agencies under them. For example, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was originally part of the Department of Labor but was transferred to the Justice Department in 1940. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (1953) was renamed Health and Human Services in 1979 when a separate Department of Education was established. In addition to the secretaries of the departments, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the OMB director, and other officials participate in the cabinet. Following are the cabinet departments as they have existed since 1989:

  • Justice (1789)
  • State (1789)
  • Treasury (1789)
  • Interior (1849)
  • Agriculture (1889)
  • Commerce (1903; originally included Labor)
  • Labor (1913)
  • Defense (1947)
  • Health and Human Services (1953)
  • Housing and Urban Development (1965)
  • Transportation (1967)
  • Energy (1977)
  • Education (1979)
  • Homeland Security (2003)

In recent years, the cabinet departments have become targets for people who believe that too much power is in the hands of the federal government. For example, some have called for the elimination of the Department of Education, based on the belief that educational policy is best set at the state or local level. Abolishing the Department of Commerce has also been considered.

Unlike the White House staff positions or ambassadorships, cabinet appointments are not usually based on a personal relationship with the president or given as a reward. A president is more likely to base the selections on reputation, expertise, and ability to manage a large bureaucracy. Appointments are also an opportunity for a president to show that the administration represents a broad cross section of the country by including ethnic and racial minorities and women in the cabinet.