10. Shrink the Cabinet

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

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Plank 10. Shrink the cabinet

Specific Recommendations

10.1. Place every agency of an executive character under a cabinet secretary who reports directly to the president. No exceptions.

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

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 federal establishment is too big and unaccountable. It’s time for Uncle Sam to make some room at the crowded cabinet table and bring today’s dozens of free-floating, quasi-autonomous agencies under a reasonable semblance of order with clear lines of accountability.

George Washington had four cabinet secretaries: State, Treasury, War, and Justice. Today his successors have 15, plus more than 80 additional agencies, many of which are not fully accountable to the elected branches and, in some cases, are neither public nor private in character, but resemble a chimera.

The massive growth of the federal establishment has created inefficiencies and driven up costs. The federal workforce has exploded. In 1940 there were 700,000 federal civilian employees. Today there are 2,700,000. Among other things, this has created a permanent constituency for big government.

If we 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). Does that seem like a good balance?

Less Is More

To address these problems, Congress should shrink the bloat and simplify the org chart. And to the extent necessary, it should reorganize itself to make this task possible, for example, by merging and realigning its own committees and procedures to create institutional biases in favor of constitutionally limited government and fiscal common sense.

In reforming the executive branch, lawmakers should pursue four main objectives: follow the Constitution, eliminate unnecessary agencies, shrink the cabinet table, and make every agency accountable to the President and Congress as the Constitution requires.

Proposed Reorganization

Now, I realize no two people will agree precisely on something as big and complicated as reorganizing the federal behemoth. And existing vested interests will naturally try to stop any change. /1

But we have to start somewhere. Here, for what it’s worth, 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, namely:

  • State
  • Treasury
  • Defense
  • Justice
  • Interior
  • Commerce /1

3. Create a new Department of Administration to house Uncle Sam’s centralized personnel and procurement functions. /2

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

5. Move the CIA and similar intelligence agencies to their natural home, the Defense Department.

6. Fold the Federal Reserve, if it still exists, into the Treasury Department. (For more on the Fed, see the honest money and independent agencies planks.)

7. Leave the Executive Office of the President as it is and retain its cabinet rank. It is the umbrella entity for the White House and presidential staff and should report directly to the president.

8. Fold all of the remaining non-cabinet agencies, boards, commissions, and government-sponsored enterprises into a big-D department. Again, no exceptions. /3

Meet Your New Cabinet

Voilà! A new cabinet table with just seven chairs: /4

  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 convenient 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 one looks more manageable?

Which one looks more constitutional? /4


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/ I’m thinking primarily of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the General Services Administration (GSA), but there are probably others.

3/ For example, I would put the Centers for Disease Control and Preventition (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under Defense, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under Commerce. I think the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is unconstitutional.

4/ 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 gets pretty crowded.

4/ In the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, Congress inserted its own top officers into the list of officers in the line of succession, between the vice president and the department heads. Now, after the vice president comes the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate. This is both unconstitutional and imprudent. It raises separation-of-powers issues and creates potential Allen Drury style conundrums. Congress should correct the error — by taking itself off the list.

Constitutional Amendments

This plank does not require any constitutional amendments.


Makes the federal establishment smaller and more accountable and more constitutionally appropriate.

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

Revised: October 8, 2019.

Published: June 21, 2013.

Author: Dean Clancy.

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