10. Shrink the Cabinet

A Plan to Renew the Promise of American Life, Plank 10

previous plank summary | contents | intro | next plank

Plank 10. Shrink the cabinet

Specific Recommendations

10.1. Reduce the number of federal cabinet-level departments from fifteen to no more than, say, seven or eight.

10.2. Without exception, place every agency of an executive character under a cabinet secretary who reports directly to the president.

10.3. Bring the Presidential Succession Act into line with the Constitution, and avert a possible constitutional crisis, by removing from the line of succession the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tem.


The cabinet table is overcrowded. The federal establishment is too big and unaccountable. It’s time for Uncle Sam to undertake a serious housecleaning and reorganization of the federal establishment.

George Washington had just four departments: State, Treasury, War, and Justice. Today the president has fifteen, plus more than eighty additional agencies, many of which are not fully accountable to the elected branches and/or not entirely public in character.

The massive growth of the federal government has created inefficiencies and driven up costs. The federal workforce has exploded. In 1940 there were 700,000 federal civilian employees. Today there are 2.7 million. Among other things, this has created a permanent constituency for big government.

If you include military personnel and state and local employees, there are nearly twice as many government workers in the United States (22 million) as there are factory workers (12.3 million). Clearly something is out of whack.

Less Is More

To address these problems, Congress should streamline the federal organization chart and shrink the federal bureaucracy. And to the extent necessary, it should reorganize itself to make this task possible, for example, by merging and realigning its own committees.

In reforming the executive branch, lawmakers should pursue four main objectives: 1) follow the Constitution, 2) prune the org chart, 3) shrink the cabinet table, and 4) make every agency accountable to the president and Congress.

Or to put it in a slightly different way, the three main principles of executive-branch reorganization should be unity, utility, and accountability.

  • Unity: Every agency under one of the three branches. No headless fourth branch. More on this in the next plank.
  • Utility: Every agency useful and non-duplicative.
  • Accountability: Every agency accountable to the president through a cabinet secretary.

Proposed Reorganization

Now, I realize no two people will agree precisely on something as big and complicated as reorganizing the American federal bureaucracy. And of course existing vested interests will try to stop any change.

But assuming we could apply the foregoing principles straightforwardly, I think it’s clear we’d end up with a lot fewer agencies, no ‘independent’ agencies, and a smaller cabinet table with just seven or eight chairs instead of the current fifteen. /1

Here specifically is how I think Congress should go about reorganizing the executive branch:

1. Eliminate all unconstitutional functions and sub-agencies.

2. Retain six of the existing cabinet-level departments: /1

✓ State

✓ Treasury

✓ Defense

✓ Justice

✓ Interior

✓ Commerce

3. Create a new Department of Administration to house Uncle Sam’s centralized personnel and procurement functions

4. Eliminate the remaining departments, transferring their functions elsewhere as seems most appropriate (but with the Commerce Department being the default destination):

✖ Agriculture

✖ Labor

✖ Housing and Urban Development

✖ Transportation

✖ Health and Human Services

✖ Energy (transfer national security functions to Defense)

✖ Education

✖ Veterans (transfer to Defense as a new operating division headed by a veteran)

✖ Homeland Security

And finally, fold the remaining non-cabinet agencies, boards, commissions, and government-sponsored enterprises into one of the big-D cabinet departments.

Note: The Executive Office of the President, which is the umbrella entity for the White House and presidential staff, would continue to exist as a free-standing, cabinet-level entity. The CIA and similar intelligence agencies would be moved to their natural home, the Defense Department. The Federal Reserve would be merged into the Treasury Department. (For more on the Fed, see the honest money and independent agencies planks.)

Meet Your New Cabinet

Voilà! A new cabinet table with just seven chairs: /2

  1. The Secretary of State
  2. The Secretary of the Treasury
  3. The Secretary of Defense
  4. The Attorney General
  5. The Secretary of the Interior
  6. The Secretary of Commerce
  7. The Secretary of Administration

And here, for reference, is our current cabinet table:

  1. The Secretary of State
  2. The Secretary of the Treasury
  3. The Secretary of Defense
  4. The Attorney General
  5. The Secretary of the Interior
  6. The Secretary of Agriculture
  7. The Secretary of Commerce
  8. The Secretary of Labor
  9. The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  10. The Secretary of Transportation
  11. The Secretary of Health and Human Services
  12. The Secretary of Energy
  13. The Secretary of Education
  14. The Secretary of Veterans
  15. The Secretary of Homeland Security

Which looks more manageable?

Which looks more constitutional? /3


1/ In this article, cabinet secretaries are listed in order of presidential succession, which is based on the order of their respective departments’ creation.

2/ The term ‘cabinet table’ in this article refers narrowly to the heads of the big-D departments, but customarily it includes the president, the vice president, and a number of non-cabinet agency heads and ambassadors upon whom the president has chosen to confer ‘cabinet rank.’ As you might imagine, the Cabinet Room can get crowded.

3/ A side-note on presidential succession. As mentioned in footnote 1, cabinet secretaries succeed to the presidential chair in the order of their department’s creation. But in the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, Congress inserted into the list, between the vice president and the department heads, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate. This mixing of the branches raises separation-of-powers questions and creates the possibility of practical conundrums that it would be wiser to avoid. Congress should reverse its mistake pronto.

Constitutional Amendments

This plank does not require any constitutional amendments.


Will make the federal establishment smaller and more accountable and more constitutionally appropriate.

Will reduce federal spending by eliminating unnecessary departments, agencies, boards, commissions, and government-sponsored enterprises.

Revised: October 8, 2019.

Published: June 21, 2013.

Author: Dean Clancy.

previous plank summary | contents | intro | next plank

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.