My How Things Have Changed – Part II

“He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

Authors Note: This is a continuation of the previous post concerning the growth of government with a particular focus on the Executive branch and the various cabinet-level departments. While this undoubtedly will leave you feeling like you are studying a high-school history lesson, please persevere.  We do need to think about these issues.  Click here to read the previous post.

Continued Growth in Number of Cabinet Departments

The Departments of Commerce and Labor are also the products of early twentieth-century special interest legislation. Business and labor promoted the creation of these two agencies to further their own agendas. As the government continued to expand, so did pressure for it to establish some sort of “Department of Commerce and Industry.” This pressure gained new impetus in the aftermath of the economic Panic of 1893 and the creation of the National Association of Manufacturers. The US Department of Commerce and Labor was created in 1903 in response to these special interest groups. The Congress originally established the Department of Commerce and Labor to investigate and report on the operations of corporations engaged in interstate commerce (with the exception of common carriers).

The Labor Department was removed from the Department of Commerce and Labor and gained cabinet-level status in 1913. This department was the direct product of a half-century campaign by organized labor for a “Voice in the Cabinet.” Also, the Department was an indirect product of the Progressive Movement of the early 1900s which promoted the achievement of better working conditions, conservation of natural resources and a host of other goals through both private and government action. The act establishing the Department of Labor, declared its main purpose as being “to foster, promote and develop the welfare of working people, to improve their working conditions, and to advance their opportunities for profitable employment.”

The United State enjoyed a period of approximately forty years (1913 to 1953) without creation of another new cabinet-level department. The next cabinet-level department – the Department of Health, Education and Welfare – was created under President Eisenhower, officially coming into existence on April 11, 1953. The creation of this department is in some ways an anomaly. It was created through the Reorganization Act of 1949 that allowed the President to create or reorganize bureaucracies as long as neither house of Congress passed a legislative veto. (This act was later declared unconstitutional). Eisenhower’s goal was to reorganize a number of existing government organizations and programs into one cabinet-level department that would address health, education and Social Security. Eisenhower’s attempt at streamlining multiple bureaucracies served as the birthplaces of one of the largest and most wasteful bureaucracies in our government.

In January 1965, Lyndon Johnson became President and initiated the Great Society program with an unprecedented legislative program and spending spree. Our Figure at the top of this page illustrates Cabinet Department growth and shows an unprecedented period of government growth beginning with the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Originally conceived as an agency to help urban poor obtain low-cost rental housing, its mission has grown in such a way as to adversely impact nearly all housing throughout the United States. The Department was charged with ensuring the capital adequacy and financial safety and soundness of two government-sponsored enterprises – the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) – both failed institutions.

The next new Great Society era cabinet department was created in 1967 – the Department of Transportation (DOT). This department combined major federal responsibilities for air and surface transport. These included the Federal Aviation Agency (whose name was changed to the Federal Aviation Administration), Federal Highway Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Saint Lawrence Seaway Commission. It is difficult to see a necessary role for this agency other than overseeing interstate airline safety.

In 1977 following the 1973 mid-east oil crisis, Jimmy Carter created the Department of Energy. Carter proposed an agency that would consolidate everything energy-related — research, exploration, conservation, production and disposal — under its authority. The Energy Department was to be responsible for setting the national energy agenda and assuring nuclear safety. The agency’s performance has been less than adequate in both areas.

In 1979, a second Carter-era cabinet office was created when the Department of Education Organization Act was signed into law, providing for a separate Department of Education. The department of Health, Education and Welfare was renamed the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) on May 4, 1980. The purpose of the Department of Education was to “establish policy for, administer and coordinate most federal assistance to education, collect data on US schools, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.” Since education in the United States is funded, managed and controlled by local and state government, the Federal Government has historically had little role either in determining curricula or setting educational standards. This has changed with passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Americans have been concerned about military veterans and their care since the founding of the country. The Continental Congress of 1776 authorized pensions for soldiers who were disabled. Congress established a system of veteran’s benefits in 1917 when the United States entered World War I. The Veterans Administration (VA) was established in 1930. The VA health care system has grown from 54 hospitals in 1930 and now includes 171 medical centers, more than 350 outpatient, community, and outreach clinics, 126 nursing home care units, and 35 residential rehabilitation and treatment facilities. President George H.W. Bush elevated the VA to cabinet-level status in 1989. What most Americans don’t realize is that the VA has been the second largest cabinet-level department in the government – second only to the Department of Defense. The VA employs nearly 280,000 people at hundreds of Veterans Affairs medical facilities, clinics, and benefits offices and is responsible for administering veterans’ benefits to veterans, their families, and survivors. The VA budget request was for $132.2 billion for FY 2012. Few people realize the size of this agency or question why veteran’s medical care could not be provided more effectively, economically and efficiently by allowing and paying for veteran’s access to private healthcare resources and facilities.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created in in 2002 in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Department has in excess of 200,000 employees and based on 2012 budget requests ($142.5 billion) will likely become the second largest Department in the United States government surpassing the Department of Veterans Affairs. The stated goal of the department is to prepare for, prevent, and respond to domestic emergencies, particularly terrorism. Agencies within the organization include US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Transportation Security Administration (TSA), United States Coast Guard, National Protection and Programs, and the United States Secret Service. The creation of this agency is widely considered the most significant and far-reaching reorganization of the US government since the Cold War. The agency remains controversial for many reasons. Many of its agencies are ineffective and poorly managed (e.g., TSA). It is so large as to be nearly impossible to monitor and control. Many have expressed justifiable concern about the potential for the agency to abuse the constitutional rights of US citizens.

Recap of Years of Government Growth

Let’s review what we have seen in the growth of the cabinet-level departments of the federal government. Only four departments were required to perform the basic functions of a government (State, Treasury, Defense, and Justice). A strong argument can be made that these are the only departments absolutely required for a fully functioning federal government.

Now we must think again about the role of government and the many functions performed by the various government offices, agencies, bureaus and departments. We must always ask ourselves one essential and difficult question – can this function be performed by the individual states rather than by the Federal government?

Let us begin by examining the first additional Department – the Post Office. We will grant that in the late eighteenth century, written communications was the only method for communicating over any distance. Therefore a Post Office that could only use roads and rivers as means of communications made sense as a way of efficiently and effectively tying the states and citizens together. It would have been difficult to connect and coordinate thirteen different postal systems and manage the development of post roads connecting all of the states. Therefore, the Post Office made sense – for an eighteenth century world. Given the plethora of communications media and devices available to us today, we can only conclude that the Post Office is an anachronism that has outlived its usefulness.

Again examining our chart depicting the growth in government cabinet-level departments, we see that the next new department was not justified until 1849 with the formation of the Interior Department. We argue that the Interior Department was formed in response to two very different forces. The first force was simply the proliferation of government offices and agencies. Often these offices and agencies were created as political expediencies rather than to solve a real problem. The other force was transitory in nature – the country was expanding by acquiring new land and developing new territories that required administration. The government was forced to deal with a wide-spread Native American population. This forced actions that could only be handled at the federal level. Obviously, managing emerging territories and dealing with the Indian population were not tasks that could be handled at the state level. Certainly, between 1845 and 1885 there was a real need for some of the government services provided by the Interior Department.

We see the next spate of growth in cabinet-level departments between 1889 and 1913 with the creation of the Agriculture, Commerce and Labor Departments. As we have noted, these departments were created in response to the Progressive political and social movement in this country. It can also be argued that these three cabinet departments represent the onset of special interest politics. Special interest groups are simply the factions that the original founders warned us about.

It was 1953 before another Cabinet-level department was created – the Department of Health and Human Services. Again, this department was created in an attempt to manage the proliferation of additional government agencies that had come into existence during World War I, the administration of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and World War II.

The next period of rapid growth in the creation of new Cabinet Departments began in 1965 and was brought about by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. This saw the creation of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation. We argue that the Great Society program and creation of these new departments were primarily a reaction to the transitory problems of a turbulent and rapidly changing society.

Jimmy Carter, also in reaction to a set of transitory problems brought on by the Oil Crisis, created the Department of Energy. He also created the Department of Education to administer federal educational efforts. There remains an ongoing debate whether the federal government has any legitimate role in local and state educational activities.

Finally, the Department of Homeland Security was created in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It has rapidly become one of our largest cabinet-level departments.


What lessons can we learn from this brief review of the creation of cabinet-level departments? What can be learned from examining 250 years of American history and national development? Let us attempt to summarize:

  • There are certain functions identified by the founders that are clearly and unarguably functions and roles that should be satisfied by the federal government. These are Defense, Justice, State and Treasury.
  • Some roles and functions can become obsolete because of changes in technology and when this happens the cabinet level department and the federal role is no longer required. The Post Office is a prime example of such an agency. (Indeed, the Post Office has already been demoted from a cabinet-level department to a subsidiary corporation).
  • Some cabinet-level departments are created in response to changing needs and transitory conditions in our society – e.g., westward expansion, periods of rapid industrialization.
  • Other cabinet-level departments are created to service special-interest groups rather than the entire populace of the country. (Labor, Commerce)
  • Some cabinet-level departments are created in response to transitory social or political movements such as the need for the reforms brought about by the excesses in big business in the progressive era or by the adoption of social-change agenda such as occurred with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Some are brought about by perceived threat from a hostile force such as Islamic terrorists.

One thing is clear from this analysis. All cabinet-level departments except for the original four (State, Treasury, Defense, Justice) were justified by events and movements that, when viewed over the 250 year history of the country, are temporary or transitory in nature. Therefore, it seems imperative that all of these departments must be created with a specified life span. Further, since our Congress tends to react to the current and short-term political fashion, trend, movement or special interest without due consideration for the long-terms detrimental effects of creating an additional cabinet-level department, it seems to us that this power to create bureaucracy should be removed from the Congress and relegated to the people. Since the Congress and has shown no willingness to reign in the growth of the Executive and the number of cabinet departments, this power must also be returned to the people.

We propose that any new cabinet-level departments should only be created by amending the Constitution to require that cabinet-level department be created only by approval by both house of congress and by popular vote in the states. That is, any bill creating a new cabinet-level department must be approved by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Congress and then ratified by vote of three-fourths of the states. This is the same procedure currently used in amending the Constitution. This will make it much more difficult to create new bureaucracy and will minimize creation due to political and social fads and fashion.

We also believe that such a process must require that any such department created must automatically be dissolved after thirty years unless a new act is passed by both the Congress and the states that extends the life of that department. This will ensure that rigorous debate and review will occur before either creating or extending the life of any cabinet-level department. In future postings we will examine the existing cabinet level bureaucracies and make recommendations for their disposal.

Remember that the government controls and regulates all aspects of our lives because it can – and it can because we have allowed the formation of a permanent bureaucracy that exists only for that purpose.

We must take back control of our government by continually asking what are the necessary and proper roles of a federal government. Is there any legitimate requirement for a federal government to provide more than the following functions and services?

  1. Provide for the common defense
  2. Ensure that constitutional protections are provided to all citizens and not usurped by the states.
  3. Collection of taxes and maintenance of a common currency
  4. Conduct affairs of state with foreign powers

If we will relegate again the proper role of government to the states and local governments and defund and destroy unneeded bureaucracy we can again prosper as a country. We must make it much harder to create cabinet-level departments. Since history shows that conditions change, these departments should have a limited life and a death forced upon them except in exceptional and unusual circumstances.

Our founders were only too aware of the power of big government to usurp their freedoms. In the Declaration of Independence they declared that the British government had “… erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” Is not our own government doing the same to us? Think about it.

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