The Cabinet is a part of the executive branch of the U.S. federal government consisting of the heads of federal executive departments. Despite having evolved as one of the most powerful organs of the contemporary U.S. government, the term "Cabinet" does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, where reference is made only to the heads of departments.
Constitutional and legal basis
Article Two of the Constitution provides that the President can 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." The 25th Amendment provides that the Vice President and a majority of the principal officers of the departments can transmit a notice that the President is unfit for office.
There is no explicit definition of the term "Cabinet" in either the United States Code or the Code of Federal Regulations. However, there are occasional references to "cabinet-level officers" or "secretaries," which when viewed in context appear to refer to the heads of the "executive departments" as listed in 5 U.S.C. § 101.
The first president of the United States, George Washington, quickly realized the importance of having a cabinet. Amongst his first acts he persuaded Congress to recognize the departments of Foreign Affairs (renamed State and given additional powers a few months after its creation), Treasury, and War. Unlike contemporary European advisors who were given the title "minister", the heads of these executive departments would be given the title of "secretary" followed by the name of their department. Although Washington's cabinet also contained the position of Attorney General, the Attorney General did not become the head of the Justice Department until 1870. George Washington's first cabinet consisted of Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Knox as Secretary of War, Edmund Randolph as Attorney General and Samuel Osgood as Postmaster General.
Secretary selection process
The 15 Cabinet Secretaries are chosen by the President, and approved by the United States Senate by simple majority vote. Cabinet Secretaries are often selected from past and current American governors, senators, representatives, and other political office holders. Because of the strong system of separation of powers, however, no cabinet member can simultaneously hold an office in the legislative or judicial branches of government while serving in cabinet, nor can they hold office in state government. Private citizens such as businessmen or former military officials are also common cabinet choices. Unlike the parliamentary system of government, cabinet members are rarely "shuffled" and it is rare for a Secretary to be moved from one department to another. Some exceptions apply. For example, current Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has previously served as Secretary of Commerce. A slightly more common occurrence is for popular cabinet secretaries to be "brought back" to serve a second term under a new president. For example current Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld held his position once before, under President Gerald Ford from 1975-1977.
Unlike many Cabinets in parliamentary systems, where the Prime Minister is said to be "first among equals", the officials in the United States Cabinet are strongly subordinate to the President. In addition, the United States Cabinet does not play a collective legislative role as do the Cabinets in parliamentary systems. The main interaction that cabinet members have with the legislative branch are regular testimonials before Congressional committees to justify their actions, and co-ordinate executive and legislative policy in their respective fields of jurisdiction.
Cabinet members can be fired by the President, or impeached and removed from office by Congress. Commonly, a few Cabinet members may resign before the beginning of a second Presidential term. Usually all Cabinet members resign shortly after the inauguration of a new President. Rarely, a popular or especially dedicated Cabinet member may be asked to stay, sometimes even serving under a new President of another party.
In recent years, the Cabinet has generally declined in relevance as a policy making body. Starting with President Franklin Roosevelt, the trend has been for Presidents to act through the Executive Office of the President rather than through the Cabinet. This has created a situation in which non-Cabinet officials such as the White House Chief of Staff, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the National Security Advisor have power as large or larger than some Cabinet officials.
Traditionally the most powerful and relevant cabinet members are the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, and Attorney General. All four are included as members of the National Security Council.
Line of succession
The Cabinet is also important in the presidential line of succession, which determines an order in which Cabinet officers succeed to the office of the president following the death or resignation of the Vice President, Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate. Because of this, it is common practice not to have the entire cabinet in one location, even for ceremonial occasions like the State of the Union Address, where at least one Cabinet member does not attend. This person is the designated survivor, and they are held at a secure, undisclosed location ready to take over if the President, Vice President and the rest of the Cabinet is killed.
December 11, 2003 meeting of the Cabinet
Secretary of State - Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of the Treasury - John Snow
Secretary of Defense - Donald Rumsfeld
Attorney General - Alberto Gonzales
Secretary of the Interior - Gale Norton
Secretary of Agriculture - Mike Johanns
Secretary of Commerce - Carlos Gutierrez
Secretary of Labor - Elaine Chao
Secretary of Health and Human Services - Mike Leavitt
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development - Alphonso Jackson
Secretary of Transportation - Norman Mineta
Secretary of Energy - Samuel W. Bodman
Secretary of Education - Margaret Spellings
Secretary of Veterans Affairs - James Nicholson
Secretary of Homeland Security - Michael Chertoff
Cabinet-level administration offices
The following positions are not part of the cabinet, but have cabinet-level rank, meaning that these individuals are permitted to attend cabinet meetings:
(a) Rob Portman has been nominated to fill this vacancy.
Former Cabinet positions
- Mark Grossman's three volume history, Encyclopedia of the United States Cabinet (ABC-Clio, 2000).