Home Federal Government Government Structure: 2. The US Executive Branch

Government Structure: 2. The US Executive Branch

Government Structure: 2. The US Executive Branch

The Executive Branch of the federal government consists of the office of the President and Vice President, the Executive Office of the President (the “West Wing”), fifteen departments whose heads serve in the Cabinet and, according to the Federal Registrar, 440 federal agencies. In total, there are about 2.8 million federal government employees.

The powers of the US President are limited. The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, a constitutional role that assures civilian oversight of the US military, but only congress can declare war or provide funding for conflicts short of an outright declaration of war.

The President has the power to sign or veto any legislation, but a veto can be overturned with a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. The President is also empowered to negotiate treaties and trade agreements with foreign governments, but the Senate must approve by a two-thirds vote.

The President also appoints all federal judges and all key executive branch officials, again with the requirement for Senate approval for all judges and all cabinet heads.

Presidents also have the power to issue Executive Orders, without legislative approval, which become the law of the land unless overturned in the Supreme Court or a law passed through congress. This power comes from two sources. First, there is the “executive powers” clause of the constitution. Second, over time a wide variety of laws passed by the legislature have explicitly granted the President this power, particularly in the area of national security.

Historically, Presidents have been reluctant to use this power widely. George Washington issued eight and John Adams one. The record goes to Franklin Roosevelt, who issued 3,522, followed by Woodrow Wilson at 1,863. Our last two Presidents, George Bush and Barak Obama, issued 291 and 260, respectively.[1]

The primary role of the Vice President is to stand ready to replace the President upon death or disability. The Vice President also serves as President of the Senate, but only votes to break a tie. The real leader of the Senate is the President Pro Temp, a Senator elected by the members of the Senate.

The Executive Office of the President was originally established by Franklin Roosevelt is 1939 to add professional management depth to the office. Today, this office has about 1,800 employees. Included in the Executive Office are the Chief of Staff, Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisors, the National Security Council and the Press Secretary.

A brief review of the departments that comprise the cabinet is provided below.

  1. Department of Agriculture/100,000 employees: This department administers a wide variety of programs to assist farmers, ranchers and rural communities. Key programs include farm subsidies, at about $25 billion per year, and the Food Stamp program, at about $75 billion annually. The total budget is about $140 billion.
  2. Department of Commerce/38,000 employees: This department’s role is to protect and promote interstate and international trade and commerce. It administers trade agreements, issues patents and trademarks, regulates the telecommunications market and compiles economic data for policy makers. The total budget is about $12 billion.
  3. Department of Defense/700,000 civilian employees, 1.3 million members of the armed forces and 1.1 million members of the National Guard and Reserves: This includes the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon’s own spy group, the Defense Intelligence Agency and it’s own internal police force, the Pentagon Force Protection Agency. Total annual appropriations for the Defense Department exceed $1 trillion.
  4. Department of Education: 5,000 employees: This department administers the federal governments laws and regulations regarding education, including grant programs, student loans, the accreditation of schools and the protection of civil rights in the education system. The annual budget is $70 billion.
  5. Department of Energy/100,000 employees: This Department administers programs aimed at US energy production, distribution, consumption and cost. It also promotes R&D, including for clean energy development. It administers a wide variety of tax credit and subsidy programs. It also manages the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal. The annual cost is about $75 billion.
  6. Department of Health and Human Services/65,000 employees: Here we have Medicaid and Medicare. This Department also houses the National Institute of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Center of Disease Control. The annual budget exceeds 1 trillion.
  7. Department of Homeland Security/216,000 employees: This department was established in 2002 in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It basically consolidated a number of existing agencies under one roof, including US Customs, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the TSA and FEMA. The annual budget is about $60 billion.
  8. Department of Housing and Urban Development/9,000 employees. This department promotes home ownership via mortgage insurance programs and subsidizes housing for the poor through various rent subsidy, tax credit and block grant programs. The annual cost is in excess of $30 billion.
  9. Department of the Interior/70,000 employees: The federal government owns 500 million acres of the US and this department manages the use of all this land, including grazing, farming, timber and extraction. They are also the chief conservation group in the government and manage all the National Parkland conservation programs. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is also in this department. The annual budget is about $19 billion.
  10. Department of Justice/113,000 employees: This department is responsible for policing, prosecution and punishment. It includes the DEA, FBI, US Marshalls and Federal Bureau of Prisons. It also houses all the United States Attorneys, or federal prosecutors. It is run by the Attorney General, who is the chief law enforcement official of the US. The annual budget is about $32 billion.
  11. Department of Labor/15,000 employees: The Labor Department administers the national unemployment insurance program and a variety of programs related to job training, health and safely, job discrimination and minimum wages. The budget is in the $45 billion range.
  12. Department of State/30,000 employees: The Department of State is the primary foreign policy arm of the government. It serves as the President’s chief foreign policy advisor and leads most international negotiations. It also handles all the foreign embassies and consulate services worldwide. Similar to the Pentagon, they have their own intelligence group called the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. The annual budget in about $30 billion.
  13. Department of Transportation/55,000 employees: This department houses the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Maritime Administration. The annual budget is about $75 billion.
  14. Department of the Treasury: 100,000 employees: The Treasury collects taxes via the IRS, borrows money (a lot of money) and prints money (a lot of money). It manages the financial affairs of the government. It also regulates banks. The annual budget in about $145 billion.
  15. Department of Veterans Affairs/235,000 employees: With 25 million living veterans, the department administers a wide array of education, health and disability programs. The annual cost is in the $186 billion range. Wars have a very long tail.

Of the 440 federal agencies noted above, some have risen to the level of cabinet posts over time. This list includes the CIA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the White House Chief of Staff, the Office of Management and Budget, the US Trade Representative, the UN Ambassador, the Small Business Administration and the Council of Economic Advisors.


[1] List of United States federal executive orders, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List-of-United-States-federal-executive-orders


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here