It's a potent image of the United States government at work: The president, vice president, and the secretaries of each and every major federal department seated around the same mahogany table, forging solutions to the most critical matters facing the nation and the world. This is the Cabinet, the collective seat of executive power and the engine of the American president's policy agenda.
The U.S. Constitution establishes a government composed of three branches: the Executive, Legislative and Judicial. According to Article II of the Constitution, the power of the Executive Branch is vested in the president, who is also the head of state and the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. While not mentioned by name, the Cabinet is established in Section 2 of Article II, which states that 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 ..."
Aside from this brief mention of "executive departments," the Constitution doesn't elaborate on department names or functions. In one of his first acts as president, George Washington asked Congress to approve the creation of the Departments of Foreign Affairs (later renamed State), Treasury and War (later named Defense) [source: WhiteHouseMuseum.gov]. Today, there are 15 executive departments. The most recent addition was the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. Each of these executive departments is responsible for administering and enforcing federal law.
The Cabinet doesn't have the authority to write or enforce laws or policy. It's simply an advisory board to the president composed of handpicked senior officials. The Cabinet includes the heads of all 15 executive departments — all called Secretaries, with the exception of the Attorney General — plus the vice president and seven "cabinet-level" officials including the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Chief of Staff.
Here is a full list of the departments, agencies and offices represented in the Cabinet:
- Vice President
- Department of State
- Department of the Treasury
- Department of Defense
- Department of Justice
- Department of the Interior
- Department of Agriculture
- Department of Commerce
- Department of Labor
- Department of Health and Human Services
- Department of Housing and Urban Development
- Department of Transportation
- Department of Energy
- Department of Education
- Department of Veterans Affairs
- Department of Homeland Security
- White House Chief of Staff
- Environmental Protection Agency
- Office of Management and Budget
- United States Trade Representative
- United States Ambassador to the United Nations
- Council of Economic Advisors
- Small Business Administration
Members of the Cabinet are appointed by the president and must be confirmed by the Senate by a simple majority (51 votes). The Senate has rejected fewer than two percent of Cabinet nominees since 1789 [source: Senate.gov]. The list of Cabinet posts above also represents the official order of succession to the presidency from vice president through the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Now let's look at the history of the Cabinet in America.
History of the Cabinet
The creation of the American Cabinet began during the Revolutionary period [Source: Hinsdale]. The first "constitution" of the United States was the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1881. This document bound the 13 colonies together as a loosely held confederation with no real centralized authority. In that same year, the Continental Congress approved the creation of four departments essential to the function of the new government in wartime: the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Finance, the Department of War and the Department of Marine. Under the Articles of Confederation, the heads of each department were chosen by (and answered to) Congress, not the executive [Source: Hinsdale].
It wasn't until the Constitution was ratified in 1789 and George Washington took office that the Cabinet took on its current form and function. As one of his first acts in office, Washington convinced Congress to create the Department of State, Department of Treasury and the Department of War. For his first Cabinet members and department heads, Washington chose his most loyal and competent advisers: Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, and Henry Knox -- Washington's Major-General during the war -- as Secretary of War [source: Senate.gov]. Washington met frequently with his closest advisers and established the precedent for a presidential Cabinet that continues today.
Although the Senate plays a critical role in approving nominees to the Cabinet, it has traditionally respected the president's choice of his own advisers. Very few nominees have been rejected by the Senate, and almost none during periods when both the presidency and Congress were in the hands of the same party. In the 20th century, only two Cabinet nominees were rejected by the Senate (Lewis Strauss in 1959 and John Tower in 1989), both during periods of divided government [source: Senate.gov].
Next we'll look at one of the most important functions of the Cabinet: Cabinet meetings.
The members of the president's Cabinet represent his closest and most trusted advisors on critical foreign and domestic policy matters. While each member is in charge of the day-to-day business of his or her executive department, the president meets regularly with the Cabinet to discuss ongoing strategies to resolve everything from foreign wars to financial crises. President Obama convened a full Cabinet meeting at least every two months, but emergency Cabinet meetings are also held, such as the Cabinet meeting called by President George W. Bush on Sept. 12, 2001 [sources: WhiteHouse.gov; WhiteHouseMuseum.gov].
The agenda for each Cabinet meeting is developed by the Cabinet Secretary and his or her staff. The Cabinet Secretary is the primary liaison between the White House and the 15 executive departments [source: WhiteHouse.gov]. In preparation for each meeting, the Cabinet Secretary meets with the heads of each executive department and their staffs to identify the issues that merit the attention of the full Cabinet.
Cabinet meetings are held in the Cabinet Room, a small rectangular conference room on the first floor of the White House overlooking the Rose Garden [source: WhiteHouseMuseum.gov]. The Cabinet Room has been in its current location since 1934, when it moved from a second floor space now called the Treaty Room. Before 1869, the current location of the Cabinet Room was home to the White House stables [source: WhiteHouseMuseum.gov]. Insert manure joke here.
The president, vice president and Cabinet members sit around an oval mahogany conference table in leather-bound chairs, each bearing a bronze plate with the name of the department and the date the official took office. The order of the chairs correspond to the date in which each Cabinet position was created, with the Secretary of State seated to the president's right and the secretary of defense to his left [source: WhiteHouse.gov]. Tradition dictates that when a member of the Cabinet leaves his or her post, staff members buy the chair from the government as a parting gift.
Cabinet meetings are private, closed-door sessions. They are also the only time in which the president, vice president and every other executive officer in the line of presidential succession are found in the same room. Even during the State of the Union address, one member of the Cabinet is asked to watch from a second location to protect against a catastrophic accident or attack [source: WhiteHouse.gov]. After the Cabinet meeting is concluded, members of the press are invited in to take photos and to record the president's remarks on the work that was accomplished that day.
For lots more information about the U.S. government and executive authority, explore the related links on the next page.
It must be a heady experience, sitting around a conference table with the president and all of his most influential political advisers. Outside of Nixon's surreptitious tape recordings, we don't have transcripts of what goes on during Cabinet meetings. Do they go around in a circle, politely taking turns to share their opinions? Or is it a free-for-all? Do tempers flare up, voices rise and insults fly? We'll probably never know. A funny detail from this video on WhiteHouse.gov -- the Cabinet members must surrender their Blackberrys during the meeting. They write their names on Post-it notes, stick the notes to the back of their phones and drop them in a wicker basket before the enter the Cabinet Room. Easily the most entertaining image from the video is that basket and the Post-it on the top of the pile reading "HOLDER" with two underlines. I guess the Attorney General wants his phone back.
- Hinsdale, Mary Louise. A History of the President's Cabinet. The University of Michigan Historical Studies. 1911 (July 12, 2012.) http://books.google.com/books?id=8H8mAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
- The White House Museum. "Cabinet Room" (July 12, 2012.) http://www.whitehousemuseum.org/west-wing/cabinet-room.htm
- United States Senate. "Powers & Procedures: Nominations" (July 12, 2012.) http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/Nominations.htm
- The White House. "The Cabinet" (July 12, 2012.) http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/cabinet
- The White House. "Christopher Lu" (July 12, 2012) http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/aapi/leadership/working-group/Christopher-Lu