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Constitutional Topic: The Cabinet


The Constitutional Topics pages at the USConstitution.net site are presented to delve deeper into topics than can be provided on the Glossary Page or in the FAQ pages. This Topic Page concerns the Cabinet, the group of people that head the various departments of the Executive Branch and to whom the President advises and gets advice from. The Cabinet is only mentioned briefly in the Constitution, in Article 2, Section 2 with the words "he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices," and in the 25th Amendment Section 4.

[The President] may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices.

Without saying so directly, the Constitution created the Cabinet with those words. Note, however, that the Constitution does not go into what the executive departments will be, how many there will be, or what their duties should be.

The Cabinet consists of several people, though primarily the members are as the Constitution suggests: the principal officer in each of the executive departments. We call these people Secretaries. In other countries, they are typically called Ministers. The cabinet concept, embodied by the Privy Council, originated in England. In Britain, the Council evolved into today's Cabinet, a legal institution that advises the Prime Minister. In the U.S., the cabinet has no legal definition. It is just the secretaries of the departments, and a few other key players. Legal definition notwithstanding, though, the cabinet has played and continues to play a role in American politics.

The first cabinet, that of George Washington, consisted of only four department heads; those of State, Treasury, War, and the Attorney General. The names are familiar: Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph held the offices respectively.

The table below lists all departments, the date Congress added them to the Executive branch, and the first president to appoint a secretary.

StateJuly 27, 1789WashingtonOriginally Foreign Affairs
TreasurySeptember 2, 1789Washington 
DefenseAugust 7, 1789WashingtonOriginally War Department
JusticeSeptember 24, 1789WashingtonOriginally Office of Attorney General
NavyApril 30, 1798Adams, J.Merged into Defense in 1947
Post OfficeFebruary 20, 1792WashingtonRemoved from Cabinet level in 1972
InteriorMarch 3, 1849Taylor 
AgricultureMay 15, 1862Cleveland 
Commerce and LaborFebruary 14, 1903Roosevelt, T.Split into Commerce and Labor in 1913
CommerceMarch 4, 1913WilsonOriginally Commerce and Labor
LaborMarch 4, 1913WilsonOriginally Commerce and Labor
Health, Education and WelfareApril 11, 1953EisenhowerSplit into Health and Human Services and Education in 1979
Housing and Urban DevelopmentSeptember 9, 1965Johnson, L. 
TransportationOctober 16, 1966Johnson, L. 
EnergyAugust 4, 1977Carter 
Health and Human ServicesSeptember 27, 1979CarterOriginally Health, Education and Welfare
EducationSeptember 27, 1979CarterOriginally Health, Education and Welfare
Veterans AffairsOctober 25, 1988Bush, G.H.W. 
Homeland SecurityNovember 25, 2002Bush, G.W. 

What had been four departments is now fifteen. In the cabinet are also the Vice President and any other person in the executive department that the President wishes, such as the Ambassador to the U.N. or a National Security Advisor.

Since cabinet members are usually department heads, they are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Other than confirmation, there are no legal or constitutional requirements for the job. They serve at the whim of the President. They may, however, be impeached as any federal officer may be. Unlike in many other countries, members of the cabinet are not members of the legislature. In fact, the Constitution prohibits any member of the Congress from being an officer of the government.

Typically, the cabinet meets on a regular basis, such as weekly. However, because the cabinet is not a legal institution, meetings can be at any interval. In fact, the cabinet may not necessarily ever meet at all. In fact, there need not even be a cabinet. Some have questioned the need for a cabinet, and some modern presidents made little use of them. Since the subject matter apropos to any department varies so widely with that of the others, discussions can break down into turf wars. Former cabinet member Zbigniew Brzezinski told of using the time to catch up on newspapers and magazines.

So what role does the cabinet play? It is a place of support for the President and his policies, and the press play the cabinet up as a big source for consensus and discussion in any government. Probably closer to the truth is that the President meets with those cabinet officers whose departments have authority over the crisis of the day, and the whole cabinet is just a useful way to refer to all the people that make it up.

The Cabinet (as of October 22, 2010):

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