Executive Branch

(Excerpted from http://bensguide.gpo.gov/6-8/government/national/executive.html)


When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention created the executive branch of government, they gave the president a limited term of office to lead the government. This was very different from any form of government in Europe and caused much debate.  The delegates were afraid of what too much power in the hands of one person might lead to. In the end, with a system of checks and balances included in the Constitution, a single president to manage the executive branch of government was adopted.

The executive branch of the Government is responsible for enforcing the laws of the land. When George Washington was president, people recognized that one person could not carry out the duties of the President without advice and assistance. The Vice President, department heads (Cabinet members), and heads of independent agencies assist in this capacity. Unlike the powers of the President, their responsibilities are not defined in the Constitution but each has special powers and functions.

The President of the United States 

The President is the Head of the Executive Branch and generally viewed as the head of the U.S. Government. While he does have significant power, his power is limited by the Constitution. Specifically, the Constitution assigns the following powers to the President:

For convenience, we have divided these main powers into three categories: Head of State, Administrative, and Legislative Powers.


As Head of State, the President meets with the leaders of other countries. He has the power to recognize those lands as official countries and to make treaties with them. However, the Senate must approve any treaty before it becomes official. The President also has the power to appoint ambassadors to other countries, with the Senateís approval.


The President is also the official head of the U.S. military. As Commander in Chief, he can authorize the use of troops overseas without declaring war. To declare war officially, though, he must get the approval of the Congress.


The Presidentís administrative duties include appointing the heads of each Executive Branch department. Of course, these appointments are subject to the approval of the Senate. The President also has the power to request the written opinion of the head of each Executive Branch department, regarding any subject relating to their department.


The President of the United States:
Legislative Powers 

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.

Whereas only Congress may create legislation, it is difficult for them to pass a bill without the Presidentís approval. 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 the Supreme Court can remove the law from the books by declaring it unconstitutional.

When the President vetoes a bill, it does not go into effect. The President vetoes a bill by returning it to Congress unsigned. In most cases, he will also send them an explanation of why he rejected the legislation. Congress can override a presidential veto, but to do so, two-thirds of each chamber must vote in favor of the bill. However, an override does not occur very often.

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 Presidentís 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 Presidential veto is an extremely powerful tool. Often, to get Congress to reconsider legislation, the President need only threaten to veto a bill if it passes.

However, this power has its limitations. 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 goes against his policy.

Compromise, in general, is a crucial aspect to a Presidentís success in working with Congress. The Presidentís political party very rarely also controls 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 moving.

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 with the President and his agenda. If they side with an unpopular President, their constituents might not re-elect them. Thus, if the President loses popular support, he will lose support in Congress and will be unable to get any of his suggested legislation enacted.

The President of the United States:
Requirements and Term 

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.

NOTE: Before 1951, the President could serve as many terms as he wanted. However, every President had followed George Washingtonís example of stepping down after two terms. Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with tradition. Roosevelt successfully ran for office four times. Early in his fourth term, in 1945, he died. Six years later, Congress passed the 22nd Amendment, which limits Presidents to 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 not enough to remove the President from office alone.

The case then goes to the Senate. Overseen by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, 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 removed from office.

The President's Budget

Each year, the Federal Government spends trillions of dollars to carry out is responsibilities. It is a long and complicated process that begins with the creation and submission to Congress of the President's proposed spending plan for the Federal Government in the coming fiscal year. The documents containing the President's plan is known as the Budget of the U.S. Government.

The President's Budget is basically a series of goals with price tags attached. It allows the President to provide a suggested spending framework to Congress for use in deciding (1) how much money to spend, (2) what to spend it on, and (3) how to raise the money they have decided to spend. According to the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, the President must annually submit a budget to Congress by the first Monday in February. In addition to the proposed spending plan, the President's Budget must show:

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) assists the President in the creation of the President's Budget by gathering data from agencies and compiling it into the final plan to be approved by the President. As part of this process, OMB also studies Government services in detail and then recommends changes to the President intended to increase the economy and efficiency of Government operations.


The process of creating the President's Budget starts about a year before it is due to be submitted to Congress. It begins with the development of the President's an overall budget strategy in the spring and by summer Federal agencies submit their budget estimates based on that strategy. During the fall, the estimates provided by the agencies are reviewed by OMB and by the winter, the President's budget is reviewed, finalized, and submitted to Congress as required.


Note: As soon as it is completed, the U.S. Government Printing Office works with the Office of Management and Budget to print the President's Budget for its submission to Congress. GPO also makes the President's Budget available to the public through its dissemination programs in both print and electronic formats. The people can freely access it online via GPO Access or at a local Federal depository library, or even buy their own printed copy through GPO's Sales Program. The Budget is one of the most popular items printed by GPO. Every year, people line up in front of the GPO bookstore entrance for the press distribution. It even makes the TV news.

The online version of the President's Budget may be found at: http://www.access.gpo.gov/usbudget.


Congress and the Budget

According to the Constitution, all Federal appropriations must be authorized by Congress. This is a source of great power for Congress known as the "power of the purse". Once the President's Budget is received by Congress, the House of Representatives works to create a budget resolution, which sets the base line level of spending for the Federal Government as required by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Once this bottom line is established, Congress acts to decide how this level of funding will be dispersed among Federal activities.


This is an simplified explanation of the Budget. More detail is provided in A Citizen's Guide to the Federal Budget on GPO Access.


The President's 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 closest and most trusted advisors, members of the Cabinet attend weekly meetings with the President. The Constitution does not directly mention a "Cabinet," but the Constitutional authority for a Cabinet is found in Article II, Section 2. The Constitution 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 traditionally includes the Vice President and the heads of 14 executive departments-the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, 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 are asked to 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 Advisors, 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 14 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 be a member of Congress or hold any other elected office. Cabinet appointments are for the duration of the administration, but the President may dismiss any member at any time, without approval of the Senate. In addition, they are expected to resign when a new President takes office.

The following is a list of the current heads of the 14 executive department agencies, their department, when that department was created, and a brief description of the department from the United States Government Manual. The list is organized by order of succession. More information about each department can be found in the United States Government Manual on GPO Access. Clicking on the name of the department will take you to that department's Web site.

Department of State SealSecretary of State Colin L. Powell
Department of State (1789):
The Department of State advises the President in the formulation and execution of foreign policy and promotes 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 necessary steps to carry out established policy. In so doing, the Department engages in continuous consultations with the American public, the Congress, other U.S. departments and agencies, and foreign governments; negotiates treaties and agreements with foreign nations; speaks for the United States in the United Nations and other international organizations in which the United States participates; and represents the United States at international conferences.

The Secretary of State 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, is a member of the National Security Council, and is in charge of the operations of the Department, including the Foreign Service.

Department of the Treasury SealSecretary of the Treasury Paul H. O'Neill
Department of the Treasury (1789):
The Department of the Treasury performs four basic functions: formulating and recommending economic, financial, tax, and fiscal policies; serving as financial agent for the U.S. Government; enforcing the law; and manufacturing coins and currency.

As a major policy adviser to the President, the Secretary of the Treasury has primary responsibility for formulating and recommending domestic and international financial, economic, and tax policy; participating in the formulation of broad fiscal policies that have general significance for the economy; and managing the public debt. The Secretary also oversees the activities of the Department in carrying out its major law enforcement responsibility; in serving as the financial agent for the U.S. Government; and in manufacturing coins, currency, and other products for customer agencies. The Secretary also serves as the Government's chief financial officer.

Department of Defense SealSecretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld
Department of Defense (1947):
The Department of Defense is responsible for providing the military forces needed to deter war and protect the security of our country. The major elements of these forces are the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, consisting of about 1.4 million men and women on active duty. They are backed, in case of emergency, by the 1 million members of the Reserve and National Guard. In addition, there are about 700,000 civilian employees in the Defense Department.

Under the President, who is also Commander-in-Chief, the Secretary of
Defense exercises authority, direction, and control over the Department, which includes the separately organized military departments of Army, Navy, and Air Force, the Joint Chiefs of Staff providing military advice, the unified combatant commands, and various defense agencies established for specific purposes.

Department of Justice SealAttorney General John Ashcroft
Department of Justice (1870):
As the largest law firm in the Nation, the Department of Justice serves as counsel for its citizens. It represents them in enforcing the law in the public interest. Through its thousands of lawyers, investigators, and agents, the Department plays the key role in protection against criminals and subversion, in ensuring healthy competition of business in our free enterprise system, in safeguarding the consumer, and in enforcing drug, immigration, and naturalization laws.

The affairs and activities of the Department of Justice are generally directed by the Attorney General. The Attorney General represents the United States in legal matters generally and gives advice and opinions to the President and to the heads of the executive departments of the Government when so requested. The Attorney General appears in person to represent the Government before the U.S. Supreme Court in cases of exceptional gravity or importance.

Department of the Interior SealSecretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton
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 and honor our trust responsibilities to tribes. The Department manages the Nation's public lands and minerals, national parks, national wildlife refuges, and western water resources and upholds Federal trust responsibilities to Indian tribes. It is responsible for migratory wildlife conservation; historic preservation; endangered species; surface-mined lands
protection and restoration; mapping; and geological, hydrological, and biological science.

The Secretary of the Interior reports directly to the President and is responsible for the direction and supervision of all operations and activities of the Department.

Department of Agriculture SealSecretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman
Department of Agriculture (1862):
The Department of Agriculture works to improve and maintain farm income and to develop and expand markets abroad for agricultural products. The Department helps to curb and to cure poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. It works to enhance the environment and to maintain production capacity by helping landowners protect the soil, water, forests, and other natural resources. Rural development, credit, and conservation programs are key resources for carrying out national growth policies. Department research findings directly or indirectly benefit all Americans. The Department, through inspection and grading services, safeguards and ensures standards of quality in the daily food supply.

The Secretary of Agriculture reports directly to the President and is responsible for the direction and supervision of all operations and activities of the Department.

Department of Commerce SealSecretary of Commerce Donald L. Evans
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; provides social and economic statistics and analyses 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 benefits of the Earth's physical environment and oceanic resources; grants patents and registers trademarks; develops policies and conducts researsch on telecommunications; provides assistance to promote domestic economic development; and assists in the growth of minority businesses.

The Secretary of Commerce is responsible for the administration of all functions and authorities assigned to the Department of Commerce and for advising the President on Federal policy and programs affecting the industrial and commercial segments of the national economy.

Department of Labor SealSecretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao
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 to advance their opportunities for profitable employment. In carrying out this mission, the Department administers a variety of Federal labor laws guaranteeing workers' rights to safe and healthful working conditions, a minimum hourly wage and overtime pay, freedom from employment discrimination, unemployment insurance, and workers' compensation. The department also protects workers' pension rights; provides for job training programs; helps workers find jobs; works to strengthen free collective bargaining; and keeps track of changes in employment, prices, and other national economic measurements. As the Department seeks to assist all Americans who need and want to work, special efforts are made to meet the unique job market problems of older workers, youths, minority group members, women, the handicapped, and other groups.

The Secretary of Labor is the principal adviser to the President on the development and execution of policies and the administration and enforcement of laws relating to wage earners, their working conditions, and their employment opportunities.

Department of Health and Human Services SealSecretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson
Department of Health and Human Services (1953):
The Department of Health and Human Services is the Cabinet-level department of the Federal executive branch most involved with the Nation's human concerns. In one way or another, it touches the lives of more Americans than any other Federal agency. It is literally a department of people serving people, from newborn infants to persons requiring health services to our most elderly citizens.

The Secretary of Health and Human Services advises the President on health, welfare, and income security plans, policies, and programs of the Federal Government; and directs Department staff in carrying out the approved programs and activities of the Department and promotes general public understanding of the Department's goals, programs, and objectives.

Department of Housing and Urban Development SealSecretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez
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. The Department of Houseing and Urban Development was created to: administer the principal programs that provide assistance for housing and for the development of the Nation's communities; encourage the solution of housing and community development problems through States and localities; and encourage the maximum contributions that may be made by vigorous private homebuilding and mortgage lending industries, both primary and secondary, to housing, community development, and the national economy.

The Secretary of Housing and Urban Develepment formulates recommendations for basic policies in the fields of housing and community development; encourages private enterprise participation in housing and community development; promotes the growth of cities and States and the efficient and effective use of housing and community and economic development resources by stimulating private sector initiatives, public/private sector partnerships, and public entrepreneurship; ensures equal access to housing and affirmatively prevents discrimination in housing; and provides general oversight for the Federal National Mortgage Association.

Department of Transportation SealSecretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta
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, and oil and gas pipelines. Decisions made by the Department in conjunction with the appropriate State and local officials strongly affect other programs such as land planning, energy conservation, scarce resource utilization, and technological change.The Department of Transportation was established ``to assure the coordinated, effective administration of the transportation programs of the Federal Government'' and to develop ``national transportation policies and programs conducive to the provision of fast, safe, efficient, and convenient transportation at the lowest cost consistent therewith.''

Secretary The Department of Transportation is administered by the Secretary of Transportation, who is the principal adviser to the President in all matters relating to Federal transportation programs.

Department of Energy SealSecretary of Energy Spencer Abraham
Department of Energy (1977):
The Department of Energy, in partnership with its customers, is entrusted to contribute to the welfare of the Nation by providing the technical information and the scientific and educational foundation for the technology, policy, and institutional leadership necessary to achieve efficiency in energy use, diversity in energy sources, a more productive and competitive economy, improved environmental quality, and a secure national defense.

The Secretary of Energy decides major energy policy and planning issues; acts as the principal spokesperson for the Department; and ensures the effective communication and working relationships with Federal, State, local, and tribal governments and the public. The Secretary is the principal adviser to the President on energy policies, plans, and programs.

Department of Education SealSecretary of Education Rod Paige
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.

The Secretary of Education advises the President on education plans, policies, and programs of the Federal Government and serves as the chief executive officer of the Department, coordinating and overseeing all Department activities, providing support and encouragement to States and localities on matters related to education, and focusing the resources of the Department and the attention of the country on ensuring equal access to education and promoting educational excellence throughout the Nation.

Department of Veterans Affairs SealSecretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi
Department of Veterans Affairs (1988):
The Department of Veterans Affairs operates programs to benefit veterans and members of their families. Benefits include compensation payments for disabilities or death related to military service; pensions; education and rehabilitation; home loan guaranty; burial; and a medical care program incorporating nursing homes, clinics, and medical centers. The Department is comprised of three organizations that administer veterans programs: the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration, and the National Cemetery Administration. Each organization has field facilities and a central office component.

The Secretary of Veterans Affairs reports directly to the President and is responsible for the direction and supervision of all operations and activities of the Department.

The Presidents of the United States







George Washington

John Adams
John Adams




John Adams

Thomas Jefferson




Thomas Jefferson

Aaron Burr
George Clinton




James Madison

George Clinton
Elbridge Gerry




James Monroe

Daniel D. Tompkins




John Quincy Adams

John C. Calhoun




Andrew Jackson

John C. Calhoun
Martin Van Buren




Martin Van Buren

Richard M. Johnson




William Henry Harrison

John Tyler




John Tyler





James K. Polk

George M. Dallas




Zachary Taylor

Millard Fillmore




Millard Fillmore





Franklin Pierce

William R. King




James Buchanan

John C. Breckinridge




Abraham Lincoln

Hannibal Hamlin
Andrew Johnson




Andrew Johnson





Ulysses S. Grant

Schuyler Colfax
Henry Wilson




Rutherford B. Hayes

William A. Wheeler




James Garfield

Chester A. Arthur




Chester A. Arthur





Grover Cleveland

Thomas A. Hendricks




Benjamin Harrison

Levi P. Morton




Grover Cleveland

Adlai E. Stevenson




William McKinley

Garret A. Hobart
Theodore Roosevelt




Theodore Roosevelt

Charles W. Fairbanks




William H. Taft

James S. Sherman




Woodrow Wilson

Thomas R. Marshall




Warren G. Harding

Calvin Coolidge




Calvin Coolidge

Charles G. Dawes




Herbert C. Hoover

Charles Curtis




Franklin D. Roosevelt

John N. Garner
Henry A. Wallace
Harry S. Truman




Harry S. Truman

Alben Barkley




Dwight D. Eisenhower

Richard M. Nixon




John F. Kennedy

Lyndon B. Johnson




Lyndon B. Johnson

Hubert H. Humphrey




Richard M. Nixon

Spiro T. Agnew
Gerald R. Ford




Gerald R. Ford

Nelson A. Rockefeller




Jimmy Carter

Walter F. Mondale




Ronald W. Reagan

George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush




George Herbert Walker Bush

Dan Quayle




William J. Clinton

Albert Gore Jr.




George Walker Bush

Richard B. Cheney