Presidential Cabinet and Its Purpose

Senior Appointed Officers of the Executive Branch

George H. W. Bush;James A. III Baker;J. Danforth Quayle;Brent Scowcroft;Richard E. Cheney;Colin L. Powell;Robert M. Gates;John H. Sununu
The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images / Getty Images

A presidential cabinet is a group of the most senior appointed officers of the executive branch of the federal government.

Members of the presidential cabinet are nominated by the commander in chief and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. White House records describe the role of presidential cabinet members as being to "advise the president on any subject he may require relating to the duties of each member's respective office."

There are 23 members of the presidential cabinet, including the vice president of the United States.

How the First Cabinet Was Created

Authority for the creation of a presidential cabinet is granted in Article II Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitution gives the president the authority to seek external advisors. It states that the president can 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."

Congress, in turn, determines the number and scope of executive Departments.

Who Can Serve

A member of the presidential cabinet cannot be a member of Congress or a sitting governor.

Article I Section 6 of the U.S. Constitution states " ... No person holding any office under the United States shall be a member of either house during his continuance in office."

Sitting governors, U.S. senators and members of the House of Representatives must resign before being sworn in as a member of the presidential cabinet.

How Members Are Chosen

The president nominates cabinet officers. The nominees are then presented to the U.S. Senate for confirmation or rejection on a simple majority vote.

If approved, the presidential cabinet nominees are sworn in and begin their duties.

Who Gets to Sit on the Cabinet

Except for the vice president and attorney general, all cabinet heads are called "secretary."

The modern cabinet includes the vice president and the heads of 15 executive departments.

Seven other individuals have cabinet rank:

  • White House chief of staff
  • Environmental Protection Agency administrator
  • Office of Management & Budget director
  • U.S. Trade Representative ambassador
  • U.S. Mission to the United Nations ambassador
  • Council of Economic Advisers chairman
  • Small Business Administration administrator

The secretary of state is the highest-ranking member of the presidential cabinet. The secretary of state is also fourth in the line of succession to the presidency behind the vice president, the speaker of the House and Senate president pro tempore.

Cabinet officers serve as the heads of the following executive agencies of the government:

  • Agriculture
  • Commerce
  • Defense
  • Education
  • Energy
  • Interior
  • Justice
  • Labor
  • Health and Human Services
  • Homeland Security
  • Housing and Urban Development
  • State
  • Transportation
  • Treasury
  • Veterans Affairs

History of The Cabinet

The presidential cabinet dates to the first American president, George Washington. He appointed a Cabinet of four people:

  • Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson
  • Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton
  • Secretary of War Henry Knox
  • Attorney General Edmund Randolph

Those four cabinet positions remain the most important to the president to this day, with the War Department having been replaced by the Defense Department. Vice President John Adams was not included in Washington's cabinet, as it was not until the 20th century that the vice president's office was considered a cabinet position.

Line of Succession

The presidential cabinet is an important part of the presidential line of succession, the process that determines who will serve as president upon the incapacity, death, resignation, or removal from office of a sitting president or a president-elect.

The presidential line of succession is spelled out in the Presidential Succession Act of 1947.

Because of this, it is common practice not to have the entire cabinet in one location at the same time, even for ceremonial occasions such as the State of the Union Address.

Typically, one member of the presidential cabinet serves as the designated survivor, and they are held at a secure, undisclosed location, ready to take over if the president, vice president and the rest of the cabinet are killed.

Here is the line of succession to the presidency:

  1. Vice President
  2. Speaker of the House of Representatives
  3. President Pro Tempore of the Senate
  4. Secretary of State
  5. Secretary of the Treasury
  6. Secretary of Defense
  7. Attorney General
  8. Secretary of the Interior
  9. Secretary of Agriculture
  10. Secretary of Commerce
  11. Secretary of Labor
  12. Secretary of Health and Human Services
  13. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  14. Secretary of Transportation
  15. Secretary of Energy
  16. Secretary of Education
  17. Secretary of Veterans Affairs
  18. Secretary of Homeland Security
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gill, Kathy. "Presidential Cabinet and Its Purpose." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Gill, Kathy. (2020, August 29). Presidential Cabinet and Its Purpose. Retrieved from Gill, Kathy. "Presidential Cabinet and Its Purpose." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).