Presidential Cabinet FAQ

Why is it called the Cabinet?

It comes from a mid-16th-century French phrase for “small room.” Originally a “cabine” was a room for gambling. (See the Encarta Dictionary definition.) The Cabinet form of government began in Great Britain and has come to mean a group of heads of government departments who serve as advisers to the chief of state. In the U.S. System, the Cabinet is made up of the secretaries of the executive departments. As in so much about the presidency, George Washington started the tradition of regular group meetings of department heads. James Madison was the first president to call the group the Cabinet. (For more see the Encyclopedia Britannica entry.)

How many department heads make up the Cabinet?

Fourteen. The departments are: Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veteran’s Affairs. State is the oldest department, originally established in 1781 as the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the secretary of state is the first Cabinet officer in line for succession to the presidency. The newest is Veterans’ Affairs, elevated from a federal agency in March 1989–Ronald Reagan signed the legislation the previous year.

Where are the Cabinet’s duties defined in the Constitution?

They’re not; the word doesn’t appear in the Constitution. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution provides that the president shall “with the advice and consent of the Senate … appoint … public ministers and consuls … and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for. …” That’s why all the heads of the Cabinet must be approved by the Senate.

How often does the Cabinet meet?

Whenever the president wants. There are no formal requirements for Cabinet meetings. Gatherings of all 14 secretaries and their aides have become a rarity–outside of the formal portrait at the beginning of a presidential term. The president more often meets with advisers and department heads involved in specific subject areas, such as the economy or foreign affairs.

What’s the difference between a Cabinet-level department and a federal agency?

Different statutes govern the two, and Congress must approve the designation of a department as having Cabinet rank. Mostly it is a matter of size, broadness of mission, and prestige. For example Education was taken out of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1980 and elevated to its own Cabinet-level department. Ronald Reagan came into office with a goal of busting it back down, but it still exists today.

Do old Cabinet departments ever fade away?

Apparently not. The only example anyone could tell Explainer about was when what’s now the U.S. Postal Service left its Cabinet position in 1971 to become a quasi-governmental agency.

Do you have to be a Cabinet officer to attend a Cabinet meeting?

No, presidents often, as a way of underlining the importance of an issue or a person, announce that a non-Cabinet officer is given Cabinet status. It is a matter of courtesy, not a question of formal authority. Bill Clinton conferred that on Carol Browner, head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Ambassadors to the United Nations have often been given that status.

Is the vice president a part of the Cabinet?

Although only the heads of the congressionally approved government departments are formally part of the Cabinet, since Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, all vice presidents have been a regular part of Cabinet meetings. Prior to that, in 1791 Vice President John Adams attended a Cabinet meeting, and whatever he did, no other vice president was invited back until 1918, when Woodrow Wilson had his vice president preside over the Cabinet while he was out of the country. Warren Harding also included Calvin Coolidge in Cabinet meetings. (For more click here.)

When President-elect George W. Bush announced the appointment of Condoleezza Rice to the head of the National Security Council (NSC), he said that he had decided not to make her part of the Cabinet. Has the head of the NSC ever been part of the Cabinet?

No. The NSC, which was founded in 1947, is part of the executive office of the president; in other words, Rice will be on the president’s staff. That means part of her job is to act as a buffer between the president and the Cabinet-level bureaucracies, like the State Department. Before becoming president-elect, Bush apparently raised the idea of making the NSC a Cabinet department but has since thought better of it. He has announced Rice will be given “Cabinet status.”

Next questions?  

Explainer thanks Donald Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office, James Glaser of Tufts University, Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University, P.J. Crowley of the National Security Council, and Constance Horner of the Brookings Institution.