After George Washington took office, he assembled a Presidential Cabinet that had just four positions: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. Since then, the Cabinet has evolved greatly. Some Departments have simply been renamed, some have been proposed by Congress and never passed, and some have vanished altogether. Currently, the Cabinet includes the Vice President and the heads of 15 departments. This always-fluctuating body isn’t explicitly included in either the U.S. Code or the Code of Federal Regulations, and isn’t even really outlined in the Constitution; the document says that the President may receive “opinion” from the principal officer in each executive department. It’s up to Congress to decide the number of executive departments, but the President gets to pick who runs each one (with confirmation from the Senate, of course).
Here are 11 of the U.S. Cabinet Departments that have changed since the first Cabinet member, Hamilton, was confirmed on September 11, 1789.
1. Post Office Department
The Post Office Department originated in 1792, began its association with the president's Cabinet during Andrew Jackson’s administration, and was officially designated as a Cabinet Department in 1872. But the Postmaster General's powerful political position in the Cabinet was nixed by President Nixon with the Postal Reorganization Act in 1970. The Act transformed the nearly 200-year-old U.S. Department into a government-owned corporation, which limited its autonomy. Congress put up a fight, though; it did not want to lose control over the agency and the thousands of positions within it, which could be awarded to political do-gooders. With the switch from government-run to quasi-private, the USPS runs like a business, relying on postage revenue rather than taxpayer money, which they haven't used since 1982—except for mailing voter materials to Americans with disabilities or those overseas.
2. Department of War/Navy/Air Force
These three separate departments, now under the Department of Defense, started out under the roof of the Department of War in 1789. When it was created, the War Department oversaw the U.S. Army, but also handled naval affairs and land-based air forces. Eventually, the Navy and Air Force received their own cabinet-level departments, until the Department of Defense came along in 1949 and took over supervising all agencies concerned with national security.
3. Department of Foreign Affairs
What is now the State Department began in the summer of 1789 as the Department of Foreign Affairs, and was created because George Washington realized he needed a Cabinet to help him with his daily duties. This first Cabinet department oversaw management of the Mint, keeping of the Great Seal, and conducting the census.
4. Department of Commerce and Labor
This cabinet, created in 1903, was concerned with controlling the excess of big business. In 1913, the department was divvied up into two departments: the Department of Commerce, which still watched over big business expansion, and the Department of Labor, which took over duties including occupational safety, wage and hour standards, and re-employment services. Because the original department was under the purview of President Teddy Roosevelt and President Taft, all four secretaries were Republican.
5. Federal Security Agency
Created in 1939, the Federal Security Agency was responsible for overseeing social security, federal education funding, and food and drug safety. It was abolished in 1953 when President Eisenhower supported a plan in the Reorganization Act of 1949 shifting most of the agency’s powers to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
6. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
This department got renamed and gave away quite a bit of its responsibilities. In 1979, it moved its concerns to health and became the Department of Health and Human Services. Its education duties were passed to the newly created Department of Education.
7. Office of National Drug Control Policy
Demoted from a cabinet-level department in 2009, the Office of National Drug Control Policy was born out of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, giving it the power to enforce laws mandating that all employers contracting with the federal government must meet certain requirements for promoting a drug-free workplace.
8. National Military Establishment
This was the first name for the Department of Defense. It was organized in 1947 to unite all of the various agencies with the intent of protecting national security. It was retitled the Department of Defense in 1949.
9. Federal Emergency Management Agency
FEMA, put in place with the primary objective of responding to disasters that occur in the U.S. that overwhelm the resources of local and state authorities, used to be a cabinet-level department. In March 2003, FEMA was demoted and placed under the watch of the Department of Homeland Security.
10. Central Intelligence Agency
After reorganization following the September 11 attacks, the Director of the CIA is no longer a part of the President’s Cabinet. However, the President still appoints someone to the position. The office succeeded what was originally the Office of Strategic Services, formed during World War II and meant to operate espionage activities. After the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, the Cabinet position of the director was removed. The act created the office of the Director of National Intelligence, which now oversees the CIA.