Vail Daily column: What do the secretaries do? |

Vail Daily column: What do the secretaries do?

Following this season of electile dysfunction, we will have a new president on January 20th. Rightfully, there has been much talk and consternation about President-elect Trump’s various Secretary picks. Should a climate change denier lead the Environmental Protection Agency? Should the labor secretary-elect rail against a livable minimum wage? Should the education secretary nominee be opposed to national educational standards? Should more than a smattering of the presumptive nominees have at least minimal experience in government? Is this what Trump supporters thought “draining the swamp” would look like?

I’ll leave that for others to debate.

The questions here, though, are: Under what authority does the presidential cabinet exist; how many secretaries are there; and what do the secretaries do?

First, what exactly, is a cabinet — other than a place where you store stuff? — and what, exactly, is a secretary?

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What do the secretaries do? They run their respective departments, they advise the president and they stand ready in the line of presidential succession. Whether these particular secretaries will “drain the Washington swamp” remains to be seen.

A cabinet may be defined as the counsel or group of advisers of a king or other chief executive of a government. It consists of a group of individuals who advise the head of state. An apt definition of the word secretary is an officer of state charged with the superintendence and management of a particular department of government.

Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution provides in relevant part that the president “…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.”

Besides this constitutional license, the president’s cabinet has been handed down by custom and tradition and was instituted from the first by our first president, George Washington. The role of the cabinet secretaries is to advise the president on any subject he may require relating to the duties of each member’s respective office.

Besides their duty to advise, there is a second purpose to the cabinet; they are involved in the structure of succession in the event of presidential death, incapacity, voluntary withdrawal from office, or impeachment.

In order of succession, the cabinet is composed of: the Vice President, the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, 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 and Secretary of Homeland Security.

Count ’em up; there are 16. With the exception of the vice president, all of them are heads of their respective departments. For example, the Secretary of the Treasury is head of the Department of the Treasury. The Secretary of the Interior runs the Department of the Interior.

One other thing should be noted, while the order of succession detailed above is correct within the presidential cabinet, it is not the actual order of succession. First in line to succeed the president would be the vice president, followed by the Speaker of the House. Next, would come the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and then the various cabinet secretaries in the order detailed.

In addition to the vice president and the various secretaries, there are others who have cabinet rank. These include: the White House Chief of Staff, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the United States Trade Representative, the Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and the Administrator of the Small Business Administration.

If you add them all up, there are 24 in the formal inner presidential circle. There are, of course, many non-cabinet advisors who may have the president’s ear from various staff, to friends, to family.

It is interesting to note in the order of succession not only where government priorities and power lies but, too, the vestiges of the creation of the nation. If political ontogeny follows phylogeny, our origins and priorities focus first on foreign relations, then, in order, the treasury, defense, and so on, ending with homeland security.

Often times, the various secretaries have influence beyond their particular areas of expertise and are trusted by the president for their intellect, judgment and/or insight. As but one example, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy was instrumental with President Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crises where influence had little to do with the workings of the Department of Justice.

What do the secretaries do?

They run their respective departments, they advise the president and they stand ready in the line of presidential succession. Whether these particular Secretaries will “drain the Washington swamp” remains to be seen.

Only time, presumably, will tell.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his e-mail addresses, or

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