The Cabinet

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Established in 1903 to handle problems of both business and labor, the Department of Commerce was divided in two in 1913. As a separate agent for business the department is directed by statute to “promote the Nation’s economic development and technological advancement.” Among its many services the best known are the National Bureau of Standards, responsible for weights and measures, the Patent Office, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which supervises the National Weather Service and the nation’s fishing industry. In addition, the department directs the United States Travel Service, designed to encourage tourism, and is in charge of maritime affairs. Since 1972 it has controlled the Bureau of the Census. Staff: 36,200. Budget: $1.6 billion.


Earlier a bureau in Interior (1884) and after 1903 a part of the Department of Commerce and Labor, the Department of Labor secured independent status in 1913. Its principal interest is the welfare of wage earners. Its work is directed to enforcement of laws regulating working conditions and employment opportunities through the 2,400 offices of the United States Employment Service and the regional offices of the Employment Standards Administration, which, among other duties, administers wage regulations. The department is responsible for establishing health and safety standards for industry. Its Employment and Training Administration, through the Job Corps and other agencies, provides training programs for unemployed and underemployed workers. It also manages the Unemployment Insurance Service. The department is the smallest in the Cabinet. Staff: 14,800. Budget: $17.6 billion.


According to its own assessment the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare ” touches the lives of more Americans than any other Federal agency.” Organized in 1953, it now spends the largest single portion of the federal budget to finance a broad range of programs, including those of the Office of Education, the Office of Consumer Affairs, the Office of Civil Rights, and the Public Health Service. The department supervises the Social Security Administration. It also has responsibility for three federally aided corporations: the American Printing House for the Blind, which distributes Braille and talking books to educational institutions; Gallaudet College for the deaf; and Howard University, which was chartered by Congress in 1867 for the instruction of freed slaves. Staff: 147,125. Budget: $112.5 billion.


Now eleven years old, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has assumed the functions of several executive agencies that, from the New Deal onward, involved the federal government in public and private housing programs. Its overall charge since 1965 has been to provide for the “sound development of the Nation’s communities and metropolitan areas.” It offers comprehensive assistance to state and local planners and to builders. Among the department’s responsibilities are the Model Cities program, Urban Renewal, and Federal Disaster Assistance. In addition, it supervises various mortgage, insurance, and credit programs to encourage new construction or urban rehabilitation. Staff: 17,000. Budget: $7.5 billion.


The newest of the Cabinet departments, the Department of Transportation was created in 1966. It is composed of elements drawn from eight other agencies and is responsible for coordinating national transportation policies. It manages the Federal Highway Administration, which, through the Highway Trust Fund, directs the construction of the 42,500-mile Interstate Highway System and the improvement of 872,000 miles of primary and secondary roads. The Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the U.S. Coast Guard are under the department’s control. In addition, the department supervises the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, the National Highway Traffic Safety program, and federal policies for urban mass transportation. Staff: 75,000. Budget: $9.2 billion.

By any measure, the duties thus assigned to the eleven members of the Cabinet are impressive. As an expression of the power now concentrated in the hands of the President, they are awesome. Certainly no one person alone is capable of overseeing them all. As the record shows, that task has fallen to the Cabinet officers, who are the servants of the President first but ultimately, as Dwight Eisenhower liked to say, “the stewards of the people” as well.