Our Constitution divides government power and duty among three branches – the legislative (Congress), judicial (courts), and Executive. The executive branch executes the laws that Congress enacts and manages the nation’s daily business, under the president’s direction. To make that work, Congress established fifteen cabinet departments. Each speciallizes in one area of national affairs. The president gives broad directions to his departments through Executive Orders.
A secretary leads each department and advises the president. Secretaries are in the line of succession to the presidency, after the vice president and speaker of the House, in the order in which each department was founded. This is a list of the cabinet departments in that order.
Department of State, 1789, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton
The State Department manages American diplomatic relations with other nations. The United States maintains embassies in 191 of the world’s 195 nations – all except Bhutan, Cuba, Iran, and North Korea.
Department of the Treasury, 1789, Secretary Tim Geithner
The Treasury Department manufactures our money, collects taxes, pays the nation’s bills, and advises the president on domestic and international economic and financial matters.
Department of Defense, 1789, Secretary Robert M. Gates
The Defense Department maintains and manages the nation’s military services and advises the president on military and defense policy issues. It was called the War Department until 1949.
Department of Justice, 1789, Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.
The Justice Department is the nation’s law firm, representing the federal government in all legal matters. The Attorney General is the top law enforcement officer, supervising the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Agency, Bureau of Federal Prisons, and U.S. Marshal’s Service. He advises the president on legal issues.
Department of the Interior, 1849, Secretary Ken Salazar
Congress originally established the Interior Department to manage all internal affairs of the United States. That was everything that the other departments didn’t handle. As the nation grew and internal matters became more complex, new departments emerged to handle specific responsibilities. Today, the Interior Department maintains our natural resources, including national parks, federal public lands and buildings, and natural resources. It also oversees territorial governments and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Department of Agriculture, 1889, Secretary Tom Vilsack
The Agriculture Department implements national policy in two broad areas – agriculture and food security. The department is supposed to represent the interests of both small family farms and large corporate agriculture enterprises to the president, promote American agricultural products overseas, and operate rural development programs. Through the Food and Nutrition Service, the USDA also oversees all federal food assistance programs such as food stamps (SNAP), school breakfasts and lunches, child care and Head Start meals, and commodity distribution.
Department of Commerce, 1903, Secretary Gary F. Locke
The Commerce Department develops and promotes American domestic and international business. It manages the U.S. Census, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service, Patent and Trademark Office, Minority Business Development Agency, and international trade. The Department generates countless economic statistics and reports every year.
Department of Labor, 1913, Secretary Hilda L. Solis
The Labor Department advocates for the nation’s working people, the unemployed, and retirees by improving working conditions, advancing employment opportunities, and ensuring workplace benefits and rights. The department enforces minimum wage, child labor, and anti-discrimination laws. It operates the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mine Safety and Health Administration, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, and produces the Consumer Price Index.
Department of Health and Human Services, 1953, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
Congress founded the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953, and renamed it Health and Human Services in 1979 when it established the Department of Education. Today, the department oversees programs to protect public health and provide social services. It administers the public assistance, Medicare and Medicaid programs, as well as the Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, and the Health Insurance Privacy and Portability (HIPAA) and Affordable Care (health insurance reform) acts.
Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1965, Secretary Shaun L.S. Donovan
HUD promotes strong communities and quality, affordable homes for all Americans. It works through several federal mortgage assistance programs, low-income housing programs, and foreclosure avoidance efforts.
Department of Transportation, 1966, Secretary Ray H. LaHood
The department’s mission is to ensure a fast, safe, efficient, accessible, and convenient transportation system. The department works closely with state transportation agencies to manage the interstate highway system, railroads, and recreational boating. It regulates vehicle safety and emission standards and the interstate movement of hazardous materials. It oversees the National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Aviation Administration, and the Merchant Marine Service.
Department of Energy, 1977, Secretary Steven Chu
The Energy Department works to advance national energy security, promote scientific and technological innovation, and clean up remnants of nuclear weapons and materials. The department regulates greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear facilities, and energy research and development.
Department of Education, 1979, Secretary Arne Duncan
The Education Department develops federal education funding policies and distributes those funds, supervises data collection and research on America’s schools, brings national attention to major education issues, and enforces federal anti-discrimination laws. It administers college financial aid and the No Child Left Behind program, and maintains a database of all accredited post-secondary schools and colleges in the United States.
Department of Veterans Affairs, 1989, Secretary Erik K. Shinseki
The department, commonly called the VA, manages all veterans’ cemeteries, VA hospitals and health care services, and veterans’ benefits under the G.I. Bill.
Department of Homeland Security, 2002, Secretary Janet Napolitano
The department’s job is to prepare for and respond to all hazards and disasters threatening the United States, including terrorism, illegal immigration, and natural events such as flood, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Department agencies include the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, Transportation Safety Administration, Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Secret Service.
The United States Postal Service was a cabinet department from 1792 until Congress separated it in 1971. The Executive Office of the President also includes the six cabinet-level positions of Chief of Staff, Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Management and Budget, U.S. Trade Representative, Ambassador to the United Nations, and Council of Economic Advisers.
Collectively, these agencies are the federal bureaucracy. About two million civilian employees work for us in these offices. It’s currently fashionable among Republicans to depict government employees as lazy and incompetent. I’ve worked with government employees at every branch and level of government for nearly 30 years, and I have never found that to be true. Just like any other group of people, government employees are generally good at their jobs and make a sincere effort to provide good service.
For more information:
Executive Branch of Federal Government
President Obama’s Executive Orders
Read the Constitution
Link to all U.S. Government agencies