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What is the White House Cabinet? Posted by on Jan 11, 2021 in News

Image by Sabrina Young from Pixabay, CCO

You’ve probably been reading about the White House Cabinet. But, what, exactly, is it?

The President of the United States is the head of the Executive Branch of the government. He is therefore often referred to as the country’s Chief Executive. When a new president is elected, the search immediately begins for people to run the 15 officially designated executive departments of government. These 15 individuals, along with the Vice President of the United States, become what is known as the president’s Cabinet.

A Little History

The US Constitution calls for a group of principal officers of executive departments, to advise and assist the president, so the tradition dates back to George Washington. However, the term Cabinet for this group did not appear until a few years later, when James Madison, the 4th President of the United States referred to these executive meetings as, “The president’s cabinet.”

It’s at first an odd name for such an important group. The word cabinet comes to us from the French word cabine and the Italian word cabinetto. Both words mean a small private room. In Washington’s first years in office, there were only four members of the Cabinet, and they met in a small room to discuss very significant and grand plans and ideas, such as the formation of a national treasury. It was a small room, but was, in the words of the song, “The Room Where It Happens.”

John Adams may have been the Vice President under Washington, but he was not part of the original Cabinet. Washington chose to have a Secretary of the Treasury, a Secretary of War (later the Secretary of Defense), a Secretary of State (in charge of diplomacy with other countries), and an Attorney General to oversee the implementation of federal laws. The Vice President didn’t become a full-time member of the Cabinet until the 20th century.

Cabinet departments come and go over the years, sometimes changing names and adding or subtracting responsibilities. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, was formed after the attacks of 9/11 and oversees domestic security agencies such as the US Customs Agency, The US Coast Guard, and the US Secret Service – among many others.

Today’s Presidential Cabinet consists of:

  1. The Vice President of the United States
  2. The Secretary of State – the president’s chief foreign advisor
  3. The Secretary of the Treasury – the head of the federal treasury
  4. The Secretary of Defense – the executive in charge of running the US armed forces, second only to the president
  5. The Attorney General – the chief lawyer of the United States
  6. The Secretary of Agriculture – head of the US Department of Agriculture
  7. The Secretary of Commerce – oversees business and trade for the federal government
  8. The Secretary of Labor – controls and enforces laws at the workplace
  9. The Secretary of Education – charged with administering federal assistance to schools and enforcing federal education laws
  10. The Secretary of Energy – executive in charge of US energy policies including nuclear, fossil fuels, and modern energy technologies
  11. The Secretary of Transportation – principal advisor and policymaker in all matters relating to federal transportation programs
  12. The Secretary of Interior – responsible for the management and conservation of most federal land and natural resources
  13. The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development – responsible for creating strong, sustainable, inclusive communities, and quality affordable housing
  14. The Secretary of Health and Human Services – advises the president on matters of health, welfare, and income security issues
  15. The Secretary of Homeland Security – maintains domestic security
  16. The Secretary of Veteran Affairs – responsible for the welfare of former federal servicemen and women

Some Other Details

The president may also decide to give Cabinet status to other important Executive Branch appointees and officials. The president’s Chief of Staff often attends Cabinet meetings, as might the Ambassador to the United Nations and the National Security Advisor. President-Elect Biden has established a post of Climate Envoy to address the need for climate protection. You can expect the US Climate Envoy to be attending many Cabinet meetings. Perhaps it will become a Cabinet-level position one day.

While Cabinet members are selected by the president, they must be approved by a majority of the Senate. In some years, when the party holding the Senate majority was opposed to the president’s policies, not every selection was approved.

Cabinet meetings are not specifically held on any regular basis. Typically, meetings are held weekly, but they can be called at any time. In periods of crisis or when there are major developments either foreign or domestically, the president will likely call for Cabinet meetings.

As for how long Cabinet members hold their posts? There is a saying in government that members of the Executive Branch “Serve at the pleasure of the president.” In other words, they can be replaced by the Chief Executive at any time, just as in any corporate situation.

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About the Author: Gary Locke

Gary is a semi-professional hyphenate.