Patricia A. O'Malley
Social Policy & Programs Consulting    ~    Community Matters
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Established 1993

Meet Your Federal Bureaucracy
Your Tax Dollars at Work
July 2, 2018


Americans love to rant and wail about the bureaucracy!!! but most don’t know what it is or how it works.  Some civics teachers even claim that it’s the “fourth branch of government”.  They’re lying.  It isn’t. 

Our Constitution divides government power and duty among three branches – the legislative (Congress), judicial (courts), and Executive.  The executive branch executes the laws that Congress enacts and manages the nation’s daily business, under the president’s direction.  To make that work, Congress established fifteen cabinet departments, with each specializing in one area of national affairs.  The president shares broad directions to his departments through Executive Orders.

A secretary leads each department, and advises the president. Each department includes many sub-agencies which manage specific areas of their jurisdiction.  Secretaries are in the line of succession to the presidency, after the vice president, Speaker of the House, and President Pro Tempore of the Senate, in the order in which each department was founded. This is a list of the cabinet departments in that order.

Department of State, 1789, Secretary Mike Pompeo
The State Department manages American diplomatic relations with other nations.  The United States maintains embassies in 192of the world’s 195 nations – all except Bhutan, Iran, and North Korea.

Department of the Treasury, 1789, Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin
The Treasury Department manufactures our money, collects taxes, pays the nation’s bills, and advises the president on domestic and international economic and financial matters.

Department of Defense, 1789, Secretary James Mattis
The Defense Department maintains and manages the nation’s military services and advises the president on military and defense policy issues.  It was called the War Department until 1949.

Department of Justice, 1789, Attorney General Jeff Sessions
The Justice Department is the nation’s law firm, representing the federal government in all legal matters.  The Attorney General is the top law enforcement officer, supervising the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Agency, Bureau of Federal Prisons, and U.S. Marshal’s Service.

Department of the Interior, 1849, Secretary Ryan Zinke
Congress originally established the Interior Department to manage all internal affairs of the United States.  That was everything that the other departments didn’t handle.  As the nation grew and internal matters became more complex, new departments emerged to handle specific responsibilities.  Today, the Interior Department maintains our natural resources, including national parks, federal public lands and buildings, and natural resources. It also oversees territorial governments and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Department of Agriculture, 1889, Secretary Sonny Perdue
The Agriculture Department implements national policy in two broad areas – agriculture and food security.  The department is supposed to represent the interests of both small family farms and large corporate agriculture enterprises to the president, promote American agricultural products overseas, and operate rural development programs.  Through the Food and Nutrition Service, the USDA also oversees all federal food assistance programs such as food stamps (SNAP), school breakfasts and lunches, child care and Head Start meals, and commodity distribution.

Department of Commerce, 1903, Secretary Wilbur L. Ross, Jr.
The Commerce Department develops and promotes American domestic and international business.  It manages the U.S. Census, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service, Patent and Trademark Office, Minority Business Development Agency, and international trade.  The Department generates countless economic statistics and reports every year.

Department of Labor, 1913, Secretary Alexander Acosta
The Labor Department advocates for the nation’s working people, the unemployed, and retirees by improving working conditions, advancing employment opportunities, and ensuring workplace benefits and rights. The department enforces minimum wage, child labor, and anti-discrimination laws.  It operates the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mine Safety and Health Administration, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, and produces the Consumer Price Index.

Department of Health and Human Services, 1953, Secretary Alex Azar
Congress founded the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953, and renamed it Health and Human Services in 1979 when it established the Department of Education.  Today, the department oversees programs to protect public health and provide social services.  It administers the public assistance, Medicare, and Medicaid programs, as well as the Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, and the Health Insurance Privacy and Portability (HIPAA) and Affordable Care (health insurance reform) acts.

Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1965, Secretary Benjamin S. Carson, Sr.
HUD promotes strong communities and quality, affordable homes for all Americans.  It works through several federal mortgage assistance programs, low-income housing programs, and foreclosure avoidance efforts.

Department of Transportation, 1966, Secretary Elaine L. Chao
The department’s mission is to ensure a fast, safe, efficient, accessible, and convenient transportation system.  The department works closely with state transportation agencies to manage the interstate highway system, railroads, and recreational boating.  It regulates vehicle safety and emission standards and the interstate movement of hazardous materials. It oversees the National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Aviation Administration, and the Merchant Marine Service.

Department of Energy, 1977, Secretary James Richard Perry
The Energy Department works to advance national energy security, promote scientific and technological innovation, and clean up remnants of nuclear weapons and materials.  The department regulates greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear facilities, and energy research and development.

Department of Education, 1979, Secretary Elisabeth Prince DeVos
The Education Department develops federal education funding policies and distributes those funds, supervises data collection and research on America's schools, brings national attention to major education issues, and enforces federal anti-discrimination laws.  It administers college financial aid programs and maintains a database of all accredited post-secondary schools and colleges in the United States.

Department of Veterans Affairs, 1989, Acting Secretary Robert Wilkie
The department, commonly called the VA, manages all veterans’ cemeteries, VA hospitals and health care services, and veterans’ benefits under the G.I. Bill.  Donald Trump has nominated Wilkie to serve as VA Secretary, but the Senate has not yet voted on his confirmation.

Department of Homeland Security, 2002, Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen
The department’s job is to prepare for and respond to all hazards and disasters threatening the United States, including terrorism, illegal immigration, and natural events such as flood, hurricanes, and earthquakes.  Department agencies include the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, Transportation Safety Administration, Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Secret Service.

 The United States Postal Service was a cabinet department from 1792 until Congress separated it in 1971.

The Executive Office of the President also includes the eight cabinet-level positions of

  • Chief of Staff
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Office of Management and Budget
  • U.S. Trade Representative
  • Ambassador to the United Nations
  • Small Business Administration
  • Director of National Intelligence and
  • Central Intelligence Agency. 

 The leaders of those agencies are not in the line of succession to the presidency.

 Collectively, these agencies are the federal bureaucracy.  About two million civilian employees work for us in these offices.  Until the past year, it was fashionable among Republicans to depict government employees as lazy and incompetent.  I’ve worked with government employees at every branch and level of government for more than 35 years, and I have never found that to be true.  Just like any other group of people, government employees are generally good at their jobs and make a sincere effort to provide good service.  Their leadership, however, leaves a lot to be desired.

State and local government bureaucracies are organized in similar fashion.

For more information:
Executive Branch of Federal Government
President Trump's Executive Actions

Read the Constitution
Link to all U.S. Government agencies

Executive Orders and the U.S. Constitution

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Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

Training and Services for agencies working toward social and economic justice