cabinet, group of advisers to the head of the state who themselves are usually the heads of the administrative government departments. The nature of the cabinet differs widely in various countries. In Great Britain, where the cabinet system originated, it was at first a committee of the privy council and rose to its modern status only after the sovereignty of Parliament had been established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the gradual emergence of party government in the 18th cent. The British cabinet is a body of ministers drawn from the party that possesses a majority in the House of Commons; it is responsible to the Commons for the conduct of the administration. The cabinet is chosen by the prime minister, who is guided by the necessity of choosing a group that will represent the disparate elements in his party. The defeat in the Commons of an important ministerial measure or a general election adverse to the government results in the fall of the cabinet. In continental European countries, where the two-party system is not the rule, the coalition cabinet is more common. Cabinet members need not be selected from the majority party nor necessarily from the legislature, and they may speak in either house of the legislature.
The U.S. cabinet was not specifically established by the Constitution; it evolved through custom and is now defined by statute law. The members of the cabinet are not members of either house of Congress and are responsible, individually and not as a body, to the president, who appoints them with the approval of the Senate and may remove them at will. The cabinet member may not address Congress but may be called as a witness before congressional committees. As an advisory body, the U.S. cabinet is generally a weak institution and is often overshadowed by a strong president and his staff. The first cabinet appointments (1789) were the secretaries of State, the Treasury, and War. Since then the size and composition of the cabinet has varied considerably. Presently the 15 executive departments whose heads sit in the cabinet are the departments of State; the Treasury; Defense; Justice; the Interior; Agriculture; Commerce; Labor; Health and Human Services; Housing and Urban Development; Transportation; Energy; Education; Veterans Affairs; and Homeland Security.
See J. E. Cohen, The Politics of the U.S. Cabinet (1988).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.