The Cabinet

Published: April 15, 2018

Department of Commerce Headquarters in Washington D.C. The Secretary of the Department of Commerce is a member of the president's cabinet. Picture: Corruption Watch.

What is the cabinet?


The cabinet is a group of government officials that advises the president.


It consists of the heads of the 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.


Though not formally a cabinet member, it has also been precedent for the vice president to participate in cabinet meetings since the Roosevelt administration.


Additionally, a president may choose to designate other government officials as having cabinet-level status. Conferring such a designation on other officials does not change the powers or responsibilities they hold and is merely a symbolic gesture.  


For example, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has moved in and out of the cabinet with Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton including their U.N. ambassadors in their cabinets and George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush opting not to.


Pres. Trump’s cabinet consists of the heads of 15 the executive departments who formally comprise the cabinet plus the Vice President, the Attorney General, the White House Chief of Staff, and the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Trade Representative, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N, the Council of Economic Advisors, and Small Business Administration who have been conferred cabinet status in this administration.

When does the cabinet meet?


The cabinet meets whenever the president wants, though it is uncommon for a president to call a meeting of the entire cabinet. Generally, presidents convene meetings that deal with a particular issue and the meetings consist of individuals who work on the issue in question.


What are the origins of the cabinet?


Pres. Washington set the precedent of U.S. presidents assembling a cabinet and James Madison was the first president to refer to this group of advisors as “the cabinet.”


The U.S. Constitution makes no reference to a cabinet and does not require that one exist but the precedent has carried on since Pres. Washington first assembled his.


Are the positions that formally comprise the cabinet subject to change?


Yes, if new federal departments are created or existing ones are eliminated.


For example, prior to 2003 there was no Department of Homeland Security and the cabinet formally consisted of the heads of the then 14 federal departments. The department was created in the wake of 9/11 and its head – the Secretary of Homeland Security – became the 15th member of the cabinet.

How are members of the cabinet selected?


Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states that the president “shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint … public ministers and consuls … all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for …”


This means that the 15 formal members of the cabinet – the heads of federal departments – are nominated by the president and must then be approved by the Senate. Approval requires a simple majority (the support of 51 out of 100 senators).


Some of the other officials presidents have sometimes chosen to confer cabinet-level designation upon (e.g. the Attorney General, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.) are also nominated by the president and approved to their respective positions by the Senate while others are simply selected by the president and do not require Senate approval (e.g. the White House Chief of Staff).


The vice president is elected on the same ticket as the president.