- Historic Sites
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Since 1789 the members of the Cabinet have been a major source of Presidential power. As advisers, official spokesmen, and administrative assistants to the nation’s Chief Executive they are the modern equivalent of those highly placed councillors Aristotle called “the many eyes and ears and hands and feet” of ancient kings. Without them, it is fair to say, the colossal power now lodged in the Oval Office would be substantially reduced. We offer here a brief review of the Cabinet in the American past.
At the present time ten Secretaries and the Attorney General serve the President as his Cabinet. Through the executive departments each of them heads, they supervise the expenditure of more than $292 billion annually—or roughly 90 per cent of the federal budget—and direct the activities of some 1.8 million civilian employees who constitute about 61 per cent of the federal bureaucracy.
Their specific duties are a catalogue of the federal responsibilities assigned by the Constitution and Congress to the President for execution, ranging from the conduct of foreign affairs and control of the military forces to the establishment of school-lunch programs and the distribution of food stamps to the needy. They carry out regulatory functions in such areas as the food industry, the nation’s coal mines, and public transportation. They enforce civil-rights legislation, develop conservation policy, and manage public lands and the national park system. They serve as liaisons between the federal government and the fifty states. And much more—all of it reflecting the enormous growth in the federal government’s commitment to far-reaching economic and social services in the last forty years.
But impressive as their power seems to be, the members of the Cabinet are only subordinate officers in the executive branch. As such they are living proof of Emerson’s judgment that “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” for they have no official life apart from the President. Despite their considerable authority the Secretaries may act only as he directs; they may assume no duties he does not authorize; they serve at his pleasure and may be dismissed—without recourse to Congress or the courts—whenever he chooses. Collectively or alone, their primary function is to provide the administrative machinery that makes the Presidency work.
As a consequence there is barely a hint of mystery about the Cabinet and its role in American government. Although it stands in the reflected glare of Presidential power, it attracts little or none of the reverence the public accords the Chief Executive. It generates none of the awe that the Supreme Court, say, is capable of producing.
The Cabinet may be, in fact, the most American of institutions, if only because it represents an attempt to bring to government the kind of managerial skill American businessmen used to transform industry and finance in the nineteenth century. From its beginnings in 1789 the Cabinet was expected to develop the means by which the broadly defined powers of the executive branch could be translated into day-to-day services for the public at large.
Seen in this light, the Cabinet is simply one more pragmatic triumph of a generation that prided itself on its practicality, a generation that saw the American Revolution as not merely a search for the true principles of government but as an opportunity—in John Adams’ words—to have those principles “reduced to practice.” Such men made use of the Continental Congress as a laboratory in popular sovereignty, both in the conduct of the war and in the development of administrative forms.
The Cabinet is one result of that experimentation, for it is the direct heir of the four executive departments Congress established in 1781 to manage the army, the navy, the treasury, and foreign affairs. The end product of six years of trial and error, the departments brought some measure of centralized control to a wartime government that heretofore had been plagued by inefficiency, tangled jurisdictions, and general executive failure.
Although the department heads were little more than secretaries in the literal sense of the word, they and their successors remained as the central administrative officers of the government for the next eight years under the Articles of Confederation. In time they provided the model the Founding Fathers included in the Presidential article of the Constitution for the machinery of the executive branch.
It is a surprising inclusion because, in general, the delegates to Philadelphia in 1787 had avoided giving specific details to the form and substance of any of the offices they created. In this case, however, they recognized, as George Washington wrote, “the impossibility that one man should be able to perform all the great business of the State. …” Thus in Article 11, Section a they offered two phrases that constitute the sole sanction the Cabinet was to receive: a reference to “the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments,” with whom the President was periodically to consult in writing, and another to “the Heads of Departments,” who might, at Congress’ discretion, be empowered to appoint “inferior Officers” of the government as the need arose.