Executive Agencies

Administrative agencies are created to develop, enforce, and oversee the voluminous rules and regulations currently in force in the United States. There are two principal ways that administrative agencies can be created:  executive agencies and legislative agencies. Executive agencies are created by the president, while legislative agencies are established by an act of Congress. One of the main differences between an executive agency and a legislative agency is that the president may remove the head of an executive agency at any time with or without cause. To remove the head of a legislative agency, the president must show cause.

The United States Constitution does not provide specific and direct authority for the establishment of executive agencies or the appointment of Cabinet members. However, Article II, section 2, the Constitution states that the president 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.” As the government grew larger, executive agencies developed as a way to help the president discharge his duties and attend to his affairs. Today, these offices engage in the day-to-day administration and enforcement of executive orders and statutes. In total, the executive agencies employ over four million people and supervise an operating budget exceeding $2.3 trillion.

Executive agencies are subject to the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”), which governs the process by which administrative agencies create and enact laws. Executive agencies have the power to enact laws within the scope of their authority, conduct investigations, and enforce the laws that they promulgate accordingly. Many of the existing executive agencies are some of the oldest bureaucratic components in the nation. Established in 1789, the State Department is the oldest executive agency in the United States. A few examples of well-known executive agencies include:

  • Department of Defense
  • Department of Homeland Security
  • Department of Education
  • Department of Justice
  • Department of Commerce
  • Department of State
  • Department of Labor

The president has the power to appoint the heads of each department. Each head is officially referred to as the Secretary of his or her department, such as the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, or Secretary of Labor. The secretaries comprise the members of the president’s Cabinet and provide daily reports and guidance to the president on both national and international affairs. The State Department is the highest-ranking executive agency, and it oversees international diplomacy and updates the president on issues affecting international relations. The Department Secretaries play critical roles in helping the president develop national policy, respond to foreign situations, and enforce the president’s executive power. Many people refer to the Cabinet members as the president’s administrative arms or organs.

According to statute, the Cabinet members are part of the line of succession to the presidency in the event that the president passes away, is impeached, or steps down from office. After the vice president, Speaker of the House, and the president pro tempore of the Senate, the Secretary of State, Secretary of Treasury, and Secretary of Defense are in line to assume the presidency.