United States Government/The Executive Branch

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Contents Colonial America - Articles of Confederation - The Constitutional Convention - Ratification - The Three Branches - The Federal System - General Provisions - The Bill of Rights - The Later Amendments - Legislative Branch - Executive Branch - Judicial Branch

The Executive Branch, which executes and enforces the laws, is headed by the President and the Vice President. In addition, it includes the executive departments, which deal with general topics, and the heads of departments, who are known as Secretaries (Attorney-General in the Department of Justice). Each Department, in turn, is divided into a number of bodies, which are known as agencies, services, commissions, councils, bureaus, authorities, offices, administrations, and boards.

The PresidentEdit

The President is the highest elected official in the United States.


The Constitution grants the President a numbers of powers, including:

  • to implement laws passed by Congress.
  • Representing the United States in foreign affairs. The President has the power to enter treaties and executive agreements with foreign countries. Treaties must be approved by the Senate, but supersede any existing federal law, whereas executive agreements do not supersede existing law.
  • Command of the armed forces.
  • Veto power over bills passed by both houses of Congress. Congress can only override a presidential veto by a 2/3 vote.
  • Nominating Supreme Court justices, executive officials, ambassadors and other public officers. By default, the Senate must grant its advice and consent before the nominee takes office.

minor officials to be appointed by the President only, or by the head of a department, by passing a law to that effect.

  • Removing high-level executive officers at any time and for any reason. The President's power to remove lower-level executive officials may be limited by Congress, however.
  • Pardoning any person who has been convicted of a crime, except impeachment and civil contempt.


If the President vacates office for any reason whatsoever, the Vice President becomes President. After the Vice President, the line of succession is as follows:

  • Speaker of the House of Representatives
  • President pro tempore of the Senate
  • Secretary of State
  • Secretary of the Treasury
  • Secretary of Defense
  • Attorney General (Department of Justice)
  • Secretary of the Interior
  • Secretary of Agriculture
  • Secretary of Commerce
  • Secretary of Labor
  • Secretary of Health and Human Services
  • Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  • Secretary of Transportation
  • Secretary of Energy
  • Secretary of Education
  • Secretary of Veterans Affairs
  • Secretary of Homeland Security

The Secretaries are included in the order of the creation of their respective departments. The Secretary of Homeland Security was promoted from last to eight in the Line of Succession.

Representative Christopher Cox (R-CA), Chairman of the House Policy Committee and Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, along with Rep. Martin Frost (D-TX), Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA), Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), Rep. David Vitter (R-LA), Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ), Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), and Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), introduced H.R. 2319, a bill to amend the Presidential Succession Act of 1947.

Since the constitution only allows native born Americans to serve as President, any Secretaries who are naturalized citizens would be skipped in the succession.

The Vice PresidentEdit

The Vice President's only executive function in the Constitution is to become President in the event that the President dies or is incapacitated. The 25th Amendment provides that this may occur when:

  1. "the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary;" or
  1. "the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office."

Additionally, "whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress."

In practice, the Vice President often takes an active role in policy making.

The Vice President also serves as president of the Senate, but cannot vote except to break a tie.


Each state is entitled to choose a number of Electors equal to the number of Representatives and Senators it elects to Congress. Thus, a state will choose no less than three electors- two for the Senators, and one for the minimum of one Representative.

The state may choose its Electors in any way it pleases. However, all the states allow the people to choose all Electors. Forty-eight states use the following system: each candidate nominates a panel of electors. When a voter votes for a candidate, he or she actually votes for the nominated panel. Then, the candidate who wins more votes than any other candidate has his nominated panel appointed. Thus, a candidate who does not necessarily win all the votes will receive all of the state's electors. The exceptions to this system are Maine and Nebraska. These states allow a candidate to nominate one state panel of two electors, plus one elector for each district. Then, the candidate who wins the state has his two-member state panel appointed as electors, while the candidate who wins an individual district has his or her nominee for that district appointed. In all cases, the election for the Electors is held on the same day as Congressional elections.

Regardless of how they are chosen, the Electors all assemble in their own states in December. The manner of the voting by Electors has changed. Firstly, the following is the original system:

  • Each Elector casts two votes for President. One of those votes must be for a person not an inhabitant of the same state as the Elector. Then, if a candidate receives the votes of a majority of Electors becomes President, while the runner-up becomes Vice President. If one compares the Presidency to a gold medal, then one may say that the Vice Presidency was like a silver medal.

If, however, no candidate received a majority, then the House of Representatives would choose one of the top five candidates as President. In voting for President, each state casts one block vote. In any case, whichever other candidate holds the greatest number of votes other than the candidate elected President becomes Vice President. In case of a tie for second-place, the Senate elects the Vice President.

  • The above system seems to allow for all contingencies, but it did not allow for the development of political parties. Prior to the election of 1800, parties did not nominate candidates. However, in 1800, the Democratic-Republican Party nominated Thomas Jefferson for President and Aaron Burr for Vice President. The pair won a clear majority of the votes. However, both had an equal number of Electoral votes. Though the original intention was clearly for Jefferson to become President and Burr to become Vice President, the House still had to vote to choose one or the other as President. The House votes tied thirty-five times until Jefferson was finally elected President.
  • In order to prevent a recurrence, the Twelfth Amendment was passed. Under the Amendment, the electors would vote separately for President and Vice President. In each case, a majority was required for someone to be elected. If no majority was apparent for President, then the House would choose among the top three candidates, again voting by states. Similarly, the Senate would vote between the top two candidates for Vice President.

The District of Columbia chooses Electors like the other states, but the District can in no event choose more Electors than any other state.

Executive departmentsEdit

At present, there are fifteen executive departments. They are the departments of:

  • Department of Agriculture (USDA)
  • Department of Commerce (DOC)
  • Department of Defense (DOD)
  • Department of Education (ED)
  • Department of Energy (DOE)
  • Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
  • Department of Justice (DOJ)
  • Department of Labor (DOL)
  • Department of State (DOS)
  • Department of the Interior (DOI)
  • Department of the Treasury
  • Department of Transportation (DOT)
  • Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

Each department is subdivided into a number of agencies, bureaus and other divisions.

Executive agenciesEdit

In addition to the Cabinet departments, there are certain independent bodies which are not part of any department, but report directly to the Executive Office of the President. These include:

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
  • Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)
  • Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR)

The CabinetEdit

The Cabinet currently consists of the Vice President, the White House Chief of Staff, the heads of each executive department, and the heads of the EPA, OMB, ONDCP and USTR.

Contents Colonial America - Articles of Confederation - The Constitutional Convention - Ratification - The Three Branches - The Federal System - General Provisions - The Bill of Rights - The Later Amendments - Legislative Branch - Executive Branch - Judicial Branch