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The branch of the U.S. government that is composed of the president and all the individuals, agencies, and departments that report to the president, and that is responsible for administering and enforcing the laws that Congress passes.
The U.S. government is composed of three branches: legislative, judicial, and executive. The legislative branch consists of the U.S. Congress, which is responsible for creating laws. The judicial branch is composed of the federal courts, which are responsible for ruling on the validity of the laws that Congress passes and applying them in individual cases. The executive branch differs from both in scope and function.
The Executive Branch and the Constitution
The executive branch has undergone tremendous changes over the years, making it very different from what it was under George Washington. Today's executive branch is much larger, more complex, and more powerful than it was when the United States was founded.
When the writers of the Constitution were initially deciding what powers and responsibilities the executive branch—headed by the president—would have, they were heavily influenced by their experience with the British government under King George III. Having seen how the king and other European monarchs tended to abuse their powers, the designers of the Constitution wanted to place strict limits on the power that the president would have. At the same time, they wanted to give the president enough power to conduct foreign policy and to run the federal government efficiently without being hampered by the squabbling of legislators from individual states. In other words, the Framers wanted to design an executive office that would provide effective and coherent leadership but that could never become a tyranny.
The Framers outlined the powers and duties of the executive branch in Article II of the Constitution. The specific powers given to the president are few, and the language that is used to describe them is often brief and vague. Specifically, the president has the authority to be commander in chief of the armed forces; to grant pardons; to make treaties; and to appoint ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, and other government officers. More generally, the president is responsible for making sure "that the Laws be faithfully executed" (§ 3), though the Framers did not specify how the president was to accomplish this goal. The Framers also made no specific provisions for a staff that would assist the president; the Constitution says only that the president may "require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices" (§ 2).
To ensure that the president could never become too powerful, the Framers made many Presidential Powers dependent upon the will of Congress. For example, the president is given the power to make treaties with foreign countries, but those treaties must be approved by the Senate by a two-thirds majority. Similarly, the power of Congress is limited by the need for presidential approval. Congress can create laws, but those laws generally must be signed by the president; if the president refuses to sign a bill, it still can become law if Congress votes to override the president's Veto by a two-thirds majority. The Framers did not divide powers among the branches so much as they required the separate branches to share power, resulting in a complex system of checks and balances that prevents any one branch from gaining power over the others.
Modern presidents have greater powers than did their predecessors, as the executive branch has grown over the years to take on more tasks and responsibilities. For the most part, however, the power of the executive branch at any given time has depended on the leadership skills of the current president; the particular events and crises faced by the president; and the country's desire for, or resistance to, strong executive branch power at that point in history. Though the executive branch does have specific legal powers, the principal power of each president is simply that individual's ability to persuade others—primarily those in Congress—to follow recommendations. Whereas early presidents were selected by a small number of electors, modern presidents are selected by hundreds of electors who represent citizens nationwide; as a result, they have the advantage of a popular mandate, giving them a bully pulpit that no member of Congress can match.
Divisions of the Executive Branch
The lack of specific, detailed language in the Constitution describing the power and responsibilities of the executive branch has given presidents a great deal of flexibility to increase its size and scope over the years, in terms of both the range of its authority and the number of people, offices, and agencies employed to carry out its responsibilities. Today, the executive branch consists of well over 3 million people who work in one of three general areas: the Executive Office of the President (EOP); the cabinet and 15 executive departments; and an extensive collection of federal agencies and corporations responsible for specific areas of the government, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Postal Service.
Executive Office of the President The Executive Office of the President (EOP) is not a single office or department, but a collection of agencies that are all directly responsible for helping the president to interact with Congress and to manage the larger executive branch. Specific elements have changed over the years; currently, the EOP consists of nine separate divisions: the White House Office, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Council of Economic Advisers, the National Security Council (NSC), the Office of Policy Development, the office of the u.s. trade representative (USTR), the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Office of Administration.
In contrast to modern presidents, early presidents had few people to help them, because the Constitution contained no specific provision or allowance for presidential staff. As a result, presidents became overworked and exhausted. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote that the presidency "brings nothing but unceasing drudgery and daily loss of friends." In many cases, presidents used their own money to hire their sons, nephews, or in-laws to work as clerks or secretaries. In 1825, President James Monroe requested that Congress appropriate funds for presidential staff, but Congress was unwilling to spend the money. It was not until 1857 that Congress approved a specific appropriation for the president to hire a private secretary. Throughout the rest of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Congress slowly appropriated more money for presidential staff, allowing the president to hire a greater number of secretaries, clerks, and other assistants, such as stenographers and messengers.
The crisis of the Great Depression in the 1930s created a need for the presidential staff to be fundamentally reorganized and expanded. Whereas presidents of the nineteenth century had functioned with very limited powers, President franklin d. roosevelt took on a much stronger role, developing his collection of New Deal programs to try to grapple with the tremendous social and economic problems facing the country. These programs resulted in a much larger and more complex federal bureaucracy that was difficult to manage, leading Roosevelt to create the Committee on Administrative Management, popularly known as the Brownlow Committee. Headed by Louis Brownlow, the task of the Brownlow Committee was to study the organization of the executive branch and to suggest solutions to the problem of administrative management.
The Brownlow report, completed in 1937, made several recommendations, including the creation of the Executive Office of the President, which would bring together agencies concerned with executive branch activities, such as budgeting, efficiency, personnel, and planning. Though Congress rejected other proposals contained in the Brownlow report, it approved the creation of the EOP, by passing the Reorganization Act in April 1939 (3 U.S.C.A. § 106, 31 U.S.C.A. §§ 701,1101). As a result, key managerial agencies, such as the Bureau of the Budget and the National Resources Planning Board, were moved into the EOP; the benefit of this move was that crucial management functions could be performed by staff working directly under the president, completing the routine tasks necessary for the government to function. Though the specific elements of the EOP have changed since Roosevelt's presidency, the Brownlow report laid the foundations for the basic administrative structure that allows presidents to manage the numerous and diverse parts of the executive branch.
The Cabinet and Executive Departments The cabinet consists of the president, the vice president, the heads of the 15 executive departments, and any other government officials the president wishes to include, such as the head of the OMB or the head of the NSC. In theory, cabinet members serve as expert advisers to the president, but in practice they more often operate as advocates for their departments and are seldom involved in actual presidential decision making.
The Constitution makes no specific reference to a president's cabinet; rather, the cabinet is an institution that has evolved over the years. The first executive departments (the Departments of State, War, and the Treasury) were created in 1789 by Washington, who frequently held conferences with their heads (Jefferson, Henry Knox, and Alexander Hamilton, respectively). By 1793, James Madison was using the term cabinet to refer to these conferences. The name and the institution took hold, and the cabinet became a fixed element of the executive branch.
Presidents have used their cabinets in widely different ways. During the nineteenth century, cabinet appointments were often made for political reasons, rather than because a president knew or trusted the particular individuals selected. As a result, some presidents had trouble controlling their cabinet, and others met with their cabinet only infrequently. Andrew Jackson, for example, virtually ignored his official cabinet in favor of his kitchen cabinet, a close circle of personal friends whom he trusted for information and advice. During the twentieth century, cabinets have most often served as a forum for the president to discuss issues and to collect opinions; rarely, if ever, have they served as a decision-making body. Instead, the White House staff members frequently function as primary advisers to the president.
The largest organizational units within the executive branch are the 15 executive departments: Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, health and human services, Homeland Security, housing and urban development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs. These departments, which vary greatly in size and function, are responsible for administering the great majority of the federal government's activities and programs.
The Homeland Security Department is the newest division of the executive branch. This powerful new department was created in November 2002, and its creation was spurred by the september 11th terrorist attacks of 2001. President george w. bush first objected to the idea of establishing this department, but he then became a strong advocate for it. The birth of the department was the largest federal government reorganization since the creation of the Defense Department in 1947. Homeland Security is divided into four divisions: border and transportation security; emergency preparedness and response; chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear countermeasures; and information analysis and infrastructure protection. Existing agencies that have moved to the new department are the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Coast Guard, Customs, the Border Patrol, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, and the border inspection authority of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Homeland Security will analyze intelligence from sources such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Energy Department, the Customs Service, and the department of transportation.
Agencies and Corporations The executive branch includes a large number of agencies for which the president is responsible. Some of these agencies function independently; others are connected to an executive department but still may function as largely autonomous units. These agencies manage specific areas of government operations and have little in common except that they lie outside of the traditional management structure of the executive departments. In general, they come in three types: regulatory agencies, independent executive agencies, and government corporations. Regulatory agencies and commissions control certain economic activities and consumer affairs. They include the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Regulatory agencies and commissions are created by Congress when members believe that certain economic or commercial activities need to be regulated. They accomplish the task of regulation in various ways, depending on their mandate from Congress. Typical methods of regulation include requiring licensing for specific professions and requiring products to be labeled accurately. Some regulatory agencies operate independently, some are governed by bipartisan commissions, and some report to an executive department.
Independent executive agencies are not part of any executive department; rather, they report directly to the president. These agencies include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the General Services Administration. Frequently, Congress makes such agencies independent so that they can operate without the burden of bureaucratic regulations or the influence of particular executive departments. For example, NASA was made an independent agency so that it could be created more quickly, function more freely, and avoid the demands and influence of the department of defense.
Government corporations are a unique type of agency in that they function like businesses, providing necessary public services that would be too expensive or unprofitable for private companies to provide. They include the U.S. Postal Service; Amtrak; and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was created to develop electric power in the Tennessee Valley region. Corporations have more independence than do agencies of any other type. They can buy and sell real estate, and they can sue and be sued. They are not dependent on annual appropriations from Congress, and they retain their own earnings. Congress does provide long-term funding for government corporations, however, so it retains a certain amount of control over their operations.
Congressional Quarterly. 1989. Cabinets and Counselors: The President and the Executive Branch. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.
Department of Homeland Security Website. Available online at <www.whitehouse.gov/homeland/index.html> (accessed November 12, 2003)
Hart, John. 1987. The Presidential Branch. New York: Pergamon Press.
Hodgson, Godfrey, ed. 1992. The United States. Vol. 2. New York: Facts on File.
Nelson, Michael, ed. 1988. The Presidency and the Political System. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.
Pfiffner, James P. 1994. The Modern Presidency. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Shaw, Malcolm, ed. 1987. The Modern Presidency. New York: Harper & Row.