The Executive Branch

The executive branch of the Government is responsible for enforcing the laws of the land.  The President is the ultimate leader; however, he also appoints Cabinet members and heads of independent agencies to assist him. The responsibilities of the Cabinet heads are not defined in the Constitution, but each has special powers and functions. The Vice President serves as second in command and would assume the presidency were the President unable to serve. The Vice President also has the Constitutional responsibility as President of the Senate.


The Requirements to be President

The President and the Vice-President are the only officials elected by the entire country. However, there are requirements for holding either of these positions. In order to be elected, one must be at least 35 years old. Also, each candidate must be a natural-born U.S. citizen and have lived in the U.S. for at least 14 years.

When elected, the President serves a term of four years. At most, a President may serve two terms.

The President can be removed from office through the process of impeachment. If the House of Representatives feel that the President has committed acts of “Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors” they can impeach him with a majority vote. An impeachment is very similar to a legal indictment. It is not a conviction, however, and (surprising to many people) is not enough to remove the President from office. The case then goes to the Senate. Overseen by the Vice President, the Senate reviews the case and votes whether or not to convict the President. If they vote in favor of conviction by a two-thirds margin, then the President is immediately removed from office.


Legislative powers of the President

Most people view the President as the most powerful and influential person in the United States government. While he does wield a great deal of political might, his effect on the law-making process is limited. Only Congress can write legislation; the President may only recommend it. If he does so, then a member of Congress may introduce the bill for consideration.

While the role of Congress is to produce bills and other forms of legislation, it is the President’s duty to decide whether these bills become laws. When Congress passes a bill, they send it to the White House. The President then has three options: sign the bill into law, veto the bill, or do nothing.

When the President signs a bill into law, it immediately goes into effect. At this point, only two possibilities exist for nullifying the law. The first is the Supreme Court can declaring the law unconstitutional. The second method would be passage of a constitutional amendment.

When the President vetoes a bill, it does not go into effect. The President vetoes a bill by returning it to Congress unsigned within 10 working days of passage. In most cases, he will also send them an explanation of why he rejected the legislation. A 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress is required to override a presidential veto.

If the President chooses the third option, doing nothing with the bill, one of two things will occur. If Congress is in session ten business days after the President receives the bill, the legislation will become a law without the President’s signature. However, if Congress adjourns within ten business days of giving the bill to the President, the bill dies. When the President kills a bill in this fashion, it is known as a pocket veto. In this case, Congress can do nothing to override his decision.

The President’s ability to veto is extremely powerful. Often, to get Congress to make changes in a particular bill, the President need only threaten to veto the bill.

However, this power has limits. The President may only veto a bill in its entirety; he does not have the power of a line-item veto, which would allow him to strike individual sections of a bill while still passing it. Because of this limitation, the President must often compromise if Congress passes a bill that he agrees with, but attaches a rider that he or she doesn’t like.

Compromise is a crucial aspect to a President’s success in working with Congress. The President’s political party very rarely also controls both houses of Congress. Therefore, the President must work with Senators and Representatives who disagree with his agenda. However, if the President refused to pass any legislation that he disagreed with and Congress behaved similarly, the government would come to a halt. Thus, they must work together to keep the government operating.

In addition, the President relies on the support of the American people to accomplish his goals. The public elects the President and the members of Congress. When the public disapproves of the President, Senators and Representatives will distance themselves from the President and his goals for the country. Otherwise, if they side with an unpopular President, their constituents might not re-elect them. Should a President lose popular support, this will weaken his support in Congress.  That would make passage of his legislative agenda extremely difficult if not impossible.

Other Powers

  • Serve as commander in chief of the armed forces
  • Commission officers of the armed forces
  • Grant reprieves and pardons for federal offenses (except impeachment)
  • Convene Congress in special sessions
  • Receive ambassadors
  • Ensures the laws are faithfully executed
  • Appoint officials to lesser offices


The Cabinet

The purpose of the Cabinet is to advise the President on matters relating to the duties of their respective offices. As the President’s most trusted advisers, members of the Cabinet attend weekly meetings with the President. The Constitution doesn’t actually mention a “Cabinet,” but it states that the President “may require the opinion, in writing of the principle officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices.” The Constitution does not say which or how many executive departments should be created.

Who makes up the Cabinet?

The Cabinet includes the Vice President and the heads of 15 executive departments: the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, and the Attorney General. Cabinet-level rank has also been given to the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; the Director of the Office of Management and Budget; the Director of the National Drug Control Policy; the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security; and the U.S. Trade Representative.

When requested by the President, other officials may attend these weekly meetings including, the President’s Chief of Staff, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, the Counselor to the President, the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Administrator of the Small Business Administration, and the U.S. Representative to the United Nations.

How does one become a member of the Cabinet?

The 15 Secretaries from the executive departments are appointed by the President, and they must be confirmed by a majority vote (51 votes) of the Senate. They cannot simultaneously be a member of Congress or hold any other elected office. Cabinet appointments are for the duration of the administration, but serve solely at the pleasure of the President. They may be dismissed at any time. In addition, they are expected to resign when a new President takes office.


Who are the current cabinet members?

Current member and their pictures can be found here.


What does each member of the cabinet do?

The following is a list of the 15 executive department agencies, the year department was created, and a brief description of the department.

Department of State (1789):

The Department of State advises the President in the formulation and execution of foreign policy to promote the long-range security and well-being of the United States. The Department determines and analyzes the facts relating to American overseas interests, makes recommendations on policy and future action, and takes the steps necessary to carry out established policy.

The Secretary of State (the head of the department) is responsible for the overall direction, coordination, and supervision of U.S. foreign relations and for the interdepartmental activities of the U.S. Government abroad. The Secretary is the first-ranking member of the Cabinet, a member of the National Security Council and in charge of the Foreign Service and their actions.

Department of the Treasury (1789):

The Department of the Treasury performs four basic functions: formulating and recommending fiscal and tax policies that serve the interests of the President’s agenda; serving as financial agent for the U.S. Government; enforcing the laws pertaining to the Treasury (such as the IRS); and manufacturing coins and currency. The Secretary of the Treasury also serves as the Government’s chief financial officer.

Department of the Interior (1849):

The mission of the Department of the Interior is to protect and provide access to our Nation’s natural and cultural heritage. An important aspect of this responsibility is to ensure the Government honors its trust responsibilities to Native American tribes. The Department manages the Nation’s public lands and minerals, national parks, national wildlife refuges, and western water resources. It is responsible for migratory wildlife conservation; historic preservation; endangered species; protection and restoration of surface-mined lands; mapping; and overseeing the geological, hydrological, and biological science that guides public policy.

Department of Agriculture (1862):

The Department of Agriculture works to maintain and improve farm income while expanding markets abroad for our agricultural products. The Department helps to curb and to cure poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. It works to enhance the environment and while maintaining production capacity through programs designed to protect the soil, water, forests, and other natural resources. The Department, through inspection and grading services, safeguards and ensures standards of quality in the daily food supply.

Department of Justice (1870):

Through its thousands of lawyers, investigators, and agents, the Department plays the key role in protecting against criminal acts and subversion of our political system, ensuring laws that promote healthy competition of business in our free enterprise system are enforced, in safeguarding the consumer, and in enforcing drug, immigration, and naturalization laws. The Attorney General (the head of the department) represents the United States in most legal matters. The more critical role for the Attorney General is to advise the President on legal issues regarding the policies and decisions made by the Executive branch.

Department of Commerce (1903):

The Department of Commerce encourages, serves, and promotes the Nation’s international trade, economic growth, and technological advancement. The Department provides a wide variety of programs through the competitive free enterprise system. It offers assistance and information to increase America’s competitiveness in the world economy; administers programs to prevent unfair foreign trade competition; generates and analyzes social and economic statistics for business and government planners; provides research and support for the increased use of scientific, engineering, and technological development; works to improve our understanding and utilization of the Earth’s physical environment and oceanic resources; grants patents and registers trademarks; oversees business and development of telecommunications; promotes domestic economic development including the growth of minority businesses.

Department of Labor (1913):

The purpose of the Department of Labor is to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States, to improve their working conditions, and advance their opportunities for profitable employment. The department also keeps track of changes in employment, prices, and other national economic measurements. Special efforts are made to meet the unique job market problems of older workers, youths, minority group members, women, the handicapped and other groups.

Department of Defense (1947):

The Department of Defense is responsible for providing the military forces needed to deter war and protect the security of the United States. The major elements of these forces are the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. They are backed, in case of emergency, by the Reserve and National Guard. There are also approximately 718,000 civilian employees in the Defense Department (Source: D.o.D., 2013)

Department of Health and Human Services (1953):

The Department of Health and Human Services is the department most involved with the nation’s health concerns. It handles Medicare and Medicaid. In addition, it funds the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and Center for Disease Control  (CDC) to promote research into improving the nation’s health. This department also oversees the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responsible for ensuring effective medicines are available and preventing harmful or ineffective drugs from reaching the market.

Department of Housing and Urban Development (1965):

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is the principal Federal agency responsible for programs concerned with the Nation’s housing needs, fair housing opportunities, and improvement and development of the Nation’s communities.

Department of Transportation (1966):

The U.S. Department of Transportation establishes the Nation’s overall transportation policy. Under its umbrella there are 10 administrations whose jurisdictions include highway planning, development, and construction; urban mass transit; railroads; aviation; and the safety of waterways, ports, highways, oil and gas pipelines.

Department of Energy (1977):

The Department of Energy is entrusted to contribute to the welfare of the Nation by providing the scientific and educational foundation for the technological, policy, and institutional leadership necessary to achieve efficiency and diversity in energy use while maintaining environmental quality, ensuring such changes provide a more productive and competitive economy without sacrificing national defense.

Department of Education (1979):

The Department of Education establishes policy for, administers, and coordinates most Federal assistance to education. Its mission is to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the Nation.

Department of Veterans Affairs (1988):

The Department of Veterans Affairs operates programs to benefit veterans and members of their families.

Department of Homeland Security (2003):

This Department works to reduce America’s vulnerability to terrorism while minimizing damage from potential attacks and natural disasters.

The following positions also have the status of Cabinet-rank:

Chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisers

Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency

Director of the Office of Management & Budget

United States Trade Representative

United States Ambassador to the United Nations

White House Chief of Staff

Administrator of the Small Business Administration

Vice President





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