President Trump has nominated the members of his cabinet and they have gone through the Senate confirmation process. Democrats, predictably, have been critical of many of his appointments. Conservatives, and some libertarians, have praised some of Trump’s appointments for things that they have done and statements they have made that seem to be at odds with the mission of the very department or agency they have been nominated to lead.
Former Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, whom Trump picked to be the secretary of the Department of Energy, suggested in one of the Republican presidential debates back in 2011 that the department should be eliminated. Former Oklahoma state senator and attorney general Scott Pruitt, whom Trump tapped to head the Environmental Protection Agency, is known as an ally of the fossil-fuel industry and, along with other Republican attorneys general, sued the agency to stop the implementation of some of its rules. Betsy DeVos, now in charge of the Department of Education, is known as an advocate of charter schools and vouchers.
Many of Trump’s cabinet appointments had no experience working in government: Rex Tillerson (State), Steven Mnuchin (Treasury), Wilbur Ross (Commerce), Ben Carson (Housing and Urban Development), and Betsy DeVos (Education). For some, this automatically rendered them unqualified. For others, their lack of government experience was viewed as their best qualification; it would enable them to better shake things up and make needed reforms.
But as “good” or as “bad” as Trump’s cabinet picks are, do his cabinet appointments really matter?
The president’s cabinet (his advisors) consists of the heads of the fifteen executive-branch departments and eight other high-ranking officials in the government. Although the term “cabinet” doesn’t appear in the Constitution, “the principal officers” or “heads” of “departments” are mentioned in the first two paragraphs of Article II, Section 2:
- The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may 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, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.
- He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
Additionally, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment refers to “the principal officers of the executive departments.”
Although members of the cabinet serve at the pleasure of the president, they must first be confirmed by the Senate. They generally have a hearing before an appropriate Senate committee and are then voted on by the committee. (The party with a majority in the Senate always has a majority on Senate committees.) If the nominee is approved by the committee, he is then voted on by the full Senate. A simple majority is all that is required for confirmation. If approved, nominees are sworn in and immediately begin their duties. Incoming administrations may appoint acting cabinet secretaries from current employees of the departments they will head on an interim basis.
No cabinet pick has been rejected by the Senate since one of George H.W. Bush’s in 1989. Those likely to be rejected because of something controversial in their background that comes up generally withdraw their name or have their name withdrawn before they are voted on. Former Sen. Tom Daschle, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, withdrew his name from nomination after it was discovered that he had not been paying his taxes. Bill Clinton’s first two nominees for Attorney General — Zoë Baird and Kimba Wood — both had their names withdrawn from consideration for the post when it came to light that they had hired undocumented immigrants to work as nannies. Lin-da Chavez, George W. Bush’s first nominee for secretary of Labor, withdrew her name from nomination, as did Donald Trump’s first choice for the same position, Andrew Puzder.
The federal government contains a myriad of agencies, bureaus, corporations, commissions, administrations, authorities, and boards organized under fifteen departments. These departments are, along with the dates of their creation: Agriculture (1862), Commerce (1913), Defense (1947), Education (1979), Energy (1977), Health and Human Services (1979), Homeland Security (2002), Housing and Urban Development (1965), Interior (1849), Justice (1870), Labor (1913), State (1789), Transportation (1966), Treasury (1789), and Veterans Affairs (1989). Each department is headed by a secretary or, in the case of the Justice Department, an attorney general. Some of the departments originated with different names, and some were originally combined with others. The Department of Defense began as the Department of War (1789) and the Department of the Navy (1798). The Department of Veterans Affairs was formerly an independent agency. The current U.S. Postal System was the Post Office Department until 1971.
The other cabinet members are the vice president, the White House chief of staff, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Trade representative, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and the head of the Small Business Administration. Former cabinet-level positions include the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Departments and agencies
The Department of Agriculture provides “leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues.” Its mission is “to provide economic opportunity through innovation, helping rural America to thrive; to promote agriculture production that better nourishes Americans while also helping feed others throughout the world; and to preserve our Nation’s natural resources through conservation, restored forests, improved watersheds, and healthy private working lands.” It operates through “29 agencies and offices with nearly 100,000 employees who serve the American people at more than 4,500 locations across the country and abroad.” Approximately 80 percent of the department’s $140 billion budget goes to its Food and Nutrition Service, the largest component of which is the food stamp program.
The Department of Commerce “works with businesses, universities, communities, and the Nation’s workers to promote job creation, economic growth, sustainable development, and improved standards of living for Americans.” It operates through 12 bureaus — including the Census Bureau, the Patent and Trademark Office, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — and has “nearly 47,000 employees located in all 50 states and five U.S. territories and more than 86 countries worldwide.”
The Department of Defense includes the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and the Guard and Reserve. Although its mission is ostensibly to defend the country, “military servicemembers and civilians operate in every time zone and in every climate,” and “more than 450,000 employees are overseas, both afloat and ashore.”
The Department of Education promotes “student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Its 4,400 employees and $68 billion budget are dedicated to:
- Establishing policies on federal financial aid for education, and distributing as well as monitoring those funds
- Collecting data on America’s schools and disseminating research
- Focusing national attention on key educational issues
- Prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal access to education
The Department of Energy, with its 17 national labs, works “to ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.” It maintains the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and, through the National Nuclear Security Administration, “maintains and protects the country’s nuclear stockpile and oversees the U.S. Navy’s nuclear propulsion program.”
The Department of Health and Human Services has a mission “to enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans” by “providing for effective health and human services and fostering advances in medicine, public health, and social services.” It administers Medicare, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Head Start, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The Department of Homeland Security “secures the nation’s air, land, and sea borders to prevent illegal activity while facilitating lawful travel and trade.” It exists “to ensure a homeland that is safe, secure, and resilient against terrorism and other hazards.” Its agencies include the Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Coast Guard, and the dreaded Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has a mission “to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all.” It works “to strengthen the housing market to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes; utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination, and transform the way HUD does business.” The department operates numerous subsidized housing programs.
The Department of Interior “protects and manages the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage; provides scientific and other information about those resources; and honors its trust responsibilities or special commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated island communities.” It employs 70,000 people and operates through nine bureaus, including the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.
The Department of Justice has a mission “to enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.” Of its many agencies, the three most well- known are the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
The Department of Labor has a mission “to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.” Its many agencies include the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which publishes employment data and tracks the unemployment rate.
The Department of State has as its mission “to shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.” Its Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources (F) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) coordinate and provide “foreign assistance resources.”
The Department of Transportation serves the United States “by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future.” The top priorities of its almost 55,000 employees are “to keep the traveling public safe and secure, increase their mobility, and have our transportation system contribute to the nation’s economic growth.” Among its agencies are the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The Department of Treasury is tasked with maintaining “a strong economy” and creating economic and job opportunities by “promoting the conditions that enable economic growth and stability at home and abroad, strengthen national security by combating threats and protecting the integrity of the financial system, and manage the U.S. Government’s finances and resources effectively.” Its most notorious operating bureau is the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
The Department of Veterans Affairs “administers a variety of benefits and services that provide financial and other forms of assistance to Servicemembers, Veterans, their dependents and survivors.” It “operates the nation’s largest integrated health care system” and 135 national cemeteries.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is tasked with protecting “human health and the environment.” To accomplish its mission, the agency writes and enforces regulations based on laws passed by Congress.
The Small Business Administration (SBA) “helps Americans start, build and grow businesses.” Its mission is “to aid, counsel, assist and protect the interests of small business concerns, to preserve free competitive enterprise and to maintain and strengthen the overall economy of our nation.” It has almost 4,000 employees, district offices in every state, and a budget of more than $700 million.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) “oversees the performance of federal agencies, and administers the federal budget.”
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) “is responsible for developing and coordinating U.S. international trade, commodity, and direct investment policy, and overseeing negotiations with other countries.”
The Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) advises the president on economic policy, performs economic research, and prepares the annual Economic Report of the President.
In addition, the president appoints deputy and assistant secretaries and under-secretaries within the executive departments, as well as the heads of some department agencies such as the administrators of FEMA, the FDA, and the DEA. The president also nominates the heads of independent government agencies such as the commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA); the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the General Services Administration (GSA); the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC); and the directors of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Office of Personnel Management (OMB), and the Peace Corps.
Under the new Constitution adopted in 1789, the federal government began with just three departments: State, Treasury, and War. The Departments of the Navy and the Post Office were instituted a few years later. The office of Attorney General was also established in 1789, but there was no Justice Department until 1870.
The Department of State seems logical, especially since the Constitution in Article 2, Section 2 mentions making treaties with, and sending ambassadors to, other countries. Several paragraphs in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution seem to justify the existence of the Department of the Treasury. Congress is given the power to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises,” pay debts, “borrow Money on the credit of the United States,” “coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.” Article I, Section 9 speaks of money’s being “drawn from the Treasury” and the publication “from time to time” of “a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money.” The Departments of War and of the Navy (or a Department of Defense) are clearly authorized by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. Congress is given the power to “declare War,” “raise and support Armies,” “provide and maintain a Navy,” “make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces,” and to call forth, organize, arm, and discipline the Militia. The Post Office Department is clearly authorized by the Constitution in Article I, Section 8, where Congress is given the power to “establish Post Offices and post Roads.”
But just because a department is logical and constitutional it doesn’t follow that everything it does now is defendable. Because the U.S. military fights foreign wars and maintains an empire of troops of bases around the world, the Department of Defense is today more like a Department of Offense or a Department of Empire. The Justice Department is currently tasked with enforcing thousands of federal laws that should not exist, including drug-prohibition laws. The vast majority of federal crimes — if they should be crimes at all — should be state-level crimes, given that only the crimes of counterfeiting, piracy, and treason are mentioned in the Constitution. The Treasury Department collects income taxes through the IRS. The State Department carries out a belligerent and interventionist U.S. foreign policy.
The existence of the other federal departments is, constitutionally, either highly dubious or completely unjustified.
The Department of Transportation can only scarcely justify its existence by appealing to the power of Congress “to establish Post Offices and post Roads.” The only possible justification for the Department of Commerce is two mentions in Article I of the Constitution (Sections 8 and 9) of Congress’s regulating commerce. Yet, the government “needed” no Commerce Department until after it established the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887 and began regulating the railroads.
The Department of the Interior can barely be warranted by the Constitution’s mention in Article I, Section 8 of the land that would become the District of Columbia and the power of Congress to exercise authority “over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings.” But if the federal government didn’t engage in the clearly unconstitutional activities of providing water and producing hydroelectric power and didn’t own more than 25 percent of all the land in the United States (more than 50 percent in some states), no Interior Department would be needed.
Obviously, the Department of Veterans Affairs would appeal to the existence of millions of military veterans to justify its existence. The newest federal department — Homeland Security — justifies its existence on the necessity to secure the homeland after the 9/11 attacks. Any legitimate functions of those departments (the second- and third-largest in terms of the number of employees) — which would certainly not include FEMA or the TSA — could be carried out by the Department of Defense, since the military and defense are, in essence, what those departments relate to.
The remaining departments of Agriculture, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor cannot be justified in any way by the Constitution. Nowhere in the Constitution is the federal government authorized to have anything to do with agriculture, food, education, energy, health, housing, urban development, or employment. Those departments are the main administrators of the welfare state: Medicare; Medicaid; State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP); food stamps; farm subsidies; Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); Section 8 housing vouchers; Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF); public housing; Pell grants; subsidized student loans; Head Start; Healthy Start; community health centers; school breakfast and lunch programs; Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP); Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP); homeless assistance grants; Community Development Block Grants (CDBG); Elderly Nutrition Program; job training programs; and Special Milk Program (SMP).
Most of the alphabet soup of federal agencies (EPA, SBA, SSA, NASA, SEC, FCC, FTC, CFTC, CFPB, NSF) are likewise unconstitutional and should not exist. The OMB would be much smaller if it had fewer federal agencies to oversee and a smaller federal budget to administer. The CEA is unnecessary because the federal government should not be performing economic research and setting economic policy. The market should be free of government interference. The USTR is unnecessary because the federal government should not be developing, coordinating, or negotiating international trade. Trade should be free of government interference.
The U.S. government is not just massive; it is unfathomably monstrous. The vast majority of what it does is both unconstitutional and an illegitimate function of government. The head of a department or agency can try to reform, alter the direction of, or change the emphasis of the department or agency, but at the end of the day, he is still the head of a department or agency that either should have substantially less to do or should not exist in the first place. This is why Trump’s cabinet appointments are irrelevant. Has any of them expressed the desire to preside over the dismantling of his department? Has any of them said that he would like to lay off thousands of his employees? Has any of them called for Congress to cut his agency’s budget? Has any of them explained how the very existence of his department or agency violates the Constitution?
The federal government is an invasive, parasitical, inefficient, bungling, destructive monstrosity with no resemblance to the very limited government envisioned by the Founders.
The solution is not to get conservatives, “libertarian-leaning” Republicans, businessmen, intelligent people (Trump has boasted that his cabinet has by far the highest IQ of any cabinet ever assembled), or the “right” people to be in charge of the government’s departments, agencies, bureaus, corporations, commissions, administrations, authorities, boards, and programs. The solution is not to make government more efficient, streamline departments, slow the growth of government, reduce waste, reorganize bureaus, improve government effectiveness, enact a sequester, reform agencies, balance the budget, consolidate agencies, eliminate redundancies, or restructure programs.
The solution is to limit government to its legitimate and constitutional functions by eliminating, abolishing, shutting down, and canceling illegitimate and unconstitutional government agencies, programs, and regulations. Whoever heads government agencies, manages government programs, and issues government regulations is irrelevant if he is not charged with dismantling, ending, and rescinding them.
This article was originally published in the May 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.