Daily Operations of the Executive Branch

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Daily Operations of the Executive Branch

The executive branch is the branch of government that administers and enforces the nation's laws and public programs. It is an enormous operation, employing around three million civilian and military people as of 2005. The daily operations of the branch include work by the president, vice president, fifteen executive departments, and hundreds of bureaus, agencies, and minor offices.

A day in the life of the president

The president of the United States is head of the executive branch. A typical day on the president's job involves meeting with advisors and foreign leaders, signing bills and executive orders, working on the federal budget, and making public appearances.

Many people think of the president as the nation's chief of state, the symbolic leader of the country. This role requires the president to make public appearances at special events, attend press conferences, and address the nation in times of crisis.

The constitutional power to send ambassadors to foreign countries and receive their ambassadors makes the president the chief diplomat. In this role, the president meets with high-ranking foreign officials to work on foreign relations.

The Constitution makes the president the commander in chief of the armed forces. When the country is at war or engaged in military hostilities, the president meets frequently with military advisors for status reports. Sometimes he has to make difficult decisions concerning military action.

The constitutional power to propose legislation to Congress and to veto, or reject, bills passed by Congress makes the president the chief legislator, according to many scholars. A day in the president's life can involve speaking publicly about important legislation, signing a bill of which he approves, or vetoing a bill he dislikes.

As head of the executive branch, the president oversees a vast organization containing fifteen departments and hundreds of bureaus, agencies, and minor offices. A day in the president's life can involve signing executive orders that affect the way these offices operate. The president also meets with advisors from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to discuss budget proposals for the federal government. (A budget is a plan for how much money the government intends to spend each year.)

The role of the vice president

The vice president is the second-highest ranking official in the executive branch. In reality, though, the vice president is only as powerful as the president allows him to be. The vice president's only constitutional powers are to serve as president of the Senate, and to replace the president if he dies, resigns, or is unable to do his job.

When the Senate is in session, the vice president usually attends to start the official proceedings each day. If there is a tie vote on a bill or other issue, the vice president gets to break the tie. Otherwise, he does not get to vote, and he never gets to participate in Senate debate, or discussions, about bills and decisions, because the Constitution does not give him such power.

Besides breaking tie votes, the vice president's only other job as president of the Senate is to preside over its daily business, interpreting and enforcing the Senate's rules for conducting its proceedings. Normally after opening a session, the vice president leaves the Senate to do other work. When this happens, the president pro tempore of the Senate or another senator presides over the session. (Pro tempore means "for the time being.") The president pro tempore is usually the senator from the majority party who has served longest in the Senate. The majority party is the political party who has the most members in the Senate.

Back at the White House, the vice president attends many meetings. Because of his relationship with the senators, the vice president often meets with the president and other advisors on legislative strategy. Presidents usually invite their vice presidents to attend cabinet meetings, where the president meets with senior officials from the executive departments. Finally, vice presidents attend meetings of the National Security Council (NSC), because a congressional law passed in 1949 made the vice president an official member of the NSC. (The NSC is a special group of presidential advisors on matters relating to national security, or safety, such as military action, terrorism, and spying.) Including the vice president in important meetings prepares him to take over in case the president dies in office. According to one famous story, when Vice President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) became president after Franklin D. Roosevelt's (1882–1945) death in 1945, he did not know the United States was developing

A Day in the Life of President Gerald Ford (1913–)

Gerald Ford was president from 1974 to 1977. The Web site of the Gerald Ford Library and Museum contains an online exhibit called "A Day in the Life of the President." The exhibit includes a diary of President Ford's day on April 28, 1975. Each day in a president's life is different, but the diary gives a snapshot of what one day might be like.

On April 28, 1975, President Ford had breakfast at 6:50 am and arrived at the Oval Office at 7:34. For the next two-and-a-half hours, Ford met with various advisors. This included a meeting with David A. Peterson, chief of the Office of Current Intelligence in the Central Intelligence Agency, and Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, deputy assistant for national security affairs. The president also met separately with his legal counselor and assistant during the morning session in the Oval Office.

At 10:13 am, President Ford left the Oval Office to speak to three thousand attendees at the sixty-third annual meeting of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Ford returned to the Oval Office at 10:57 and spent the rest of the morning and the whole afternoon in meetings with various people. One meeting was with Herman H. Zerfas, a school superintendent from Michigan, and Ival E. Zylstra, administrator at the National Union of Christian Schools. They were in Washington to talk to Ford about federal funding for private religious schools. Another meeting was a photo opportunity for Lisa Lyons, who had become Miss National Teenager 1974–75. The president also had meetings with members of his cabinet, including Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger (1923–), Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Caspar W. Weinberger (1917–), and Secretary of Transportation William T. Coleman Jr. (1920–).

At 5:47 pm, President Ford met with advisors to discuss White House negotiations with Congress on an energy plan to help the national economy. The meeting lasted 90 minutes.

At 7:12 pm, Ford met in the Oval Office with Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller (1908–1979) and Kissinger. At 7:23, the three men went to the Roosevelt Room in the White House to meet with the National Security Council (NSC). The NSC is a council of senior executive officials who advise the president on matters relating to national safety. At the time, the United States was evacuating Americans from the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War (1954–75). Ford described the situation in his autobiography, A Time to Heal:

The final siege of Saigon began on April 25. Kissinger was on the telephone to U.S. Ambassador [to Vietnam] Graham Martin several times a day, and his reports convinced me that the country was going to collapse momentarily. In the late afternoon of April 28, I was chairing a meeting of my economic and energy advisers in the Cabinet Room when Brent Scowcroft entered and handed me a note. A message had just come in to the Situation Room downstairs. Our Air Force, it said, had been forced to halt evacuation flights from Saigon because Communist rockets and artillery shells were blasting the runways at Tan Son Nhut. A C-130 transport plane had been destroyed and several U.S. Marines killed. Nearly a thousand Americans still remained in Saigon, and we had to carry out our plans to evacuate them.

At 8:08, Ford returned to the Oval Office and, ten minutes later, went to the second floor of his residence in the White House. Over the next few hours, he met or spoke on the telephone about the crisis with senior advisors, including Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger (1929–). At 9:15 pm, Fordhad dinner with first lady Betty Ford (1918–).

At 11:28 pm, Ford returned to the Oval Office, and three minutes later went to the Situation Room, where White House officials meet during crisis situations. In his autobiography, Ford described the evening leading up to the meeting in the Situation Room:

I decided to wait an hour or so to see if the shelling stopped. If it did, we could resume the evacuation flights. The firing did cease, but we had a new problem to solve. Refugees were streaming out onto the airport's runways, and our planes couldn't land. The situation there was clearly out of control. The only option left was to remove the remaining Americans, and as many South Vietnamese as possible, by helicopter from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon. Choppers were standing by on the decks of U.S. Navy ships steaming off the coast, and just before midnight I ordered the final evacuation. Over the next sixteen hours we managed to rescue 6,500 U.S. and South Vietnamese personnel without sustaining significant casualties.

Five minutes after midnight, President Ford returned to his residence in the White House, making one last phone call before turning in for the night.

an atomic bomb for possible use in World War II until he was told by U.S. secretary of war Henry L. Stimson (1867–1950).

Vice presidents also have ceremonial duties. They often greet visiting foreign officials or meet with them in place of the president. They also represent the government by traveling to foreign countries for important weddings, funerals, and other events the president cannot attend. George Bush (1924–), who served as vice president under President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) from 1981 to 1989, once joked (according to The Powers of the Presidency), "I'm George Bush. You die, I fly." Vice presidents also attend ceremonies in America, either with or in place of the president.

Law enforcement: the Justice Department

The executive branch is divided into fifteen departments as of 2005, each of which handles a large area of government in the executive branch: Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health & Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing & Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs.

One of the executive branch's main jobs is to enforce the nation's laws. This job is spread among various bureaus, agencies, and other offices, most of which have law enforcement duties relating to their area of specialty. In the Department of the Treasury, for example, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) collects taxes and enforces the federal tax laws. The Department of Labor enforces laws relating to labor unions, wages, and job safety.

The department with primary law enforcement responsibility is the Department of Justice (DOJ). The head of the DOJ is called the attorney general and serves as the lead lawyer for the United States in both criminal and civil cases. (A civil case involves illegal conduct that is not criminal.)

The attorney general is assisted by a deputy attorney general, solicitor general, associate attorney general, and hundreds of U.S. attorneys and assistant U.S. attorneys. The assistants are the ones who actually handle legal cases for the government on a daily basis because there is too much work for the attorney general to handle all of it personally.

A typical day in the Justice Department involves investigation, prosecution of civil and criminal cases, and other enforcement activities.

Investigation: the Federal Bureau of Investigation

Investigating crimes is a large part of the job of law enforcement. Many agencies in the executive branch have responsibility for investigating specific kinds of crimes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the DOJ is the agency that investigates all federal crimes not specifically assigned to another agency. As of 2005, the FBI is responsible for investigating over two hundred kinds of federal crimes, including civil rights crime, counterterrorism, foreign counterintelligence, organized crime, drug crime, violent crime, and financial crime.

A day of investigation in the FBI involves many activities. Special agents conduct surveillance, following and photographing suspects to try to catch them in criminal acts. Surveillance also involves getting court orders to place wiretaps on telephone lines, allowing agents to listen to private conversations. Courts are supposed to allow a wiretap only when there is probable cause to believe a crime is being committed. According to the federal courts, probable cause means reasonable belief based on actual evidence.

Other agents visit crime scenes to gather evidence for prosecutors. Agents investigating financial crime might ask a court to order the suspect to produce documents for inspection. Agents can get warrants from federal courts to search a home or other private area or arrest a criminal suspect. The FBI photographs and fingerprints suspects and tries to talk to them to get voluntary statements about their crimes. The FBI Laboratory analyzes evidence to determine whether a crime has been committed and who the criminal is.

Prosecution: U.S. attorneys

U.S. attorneys are responsible for prosecuting civil and criminal cases for the federal government. As of 2005, there were ninety-three U.S. attorneys in districts throughout America, each of whom is assisted by many assistant U.S. attorneys.

During the course of an investigation, law enforcement agencies such as the FBI share the evidence they gather with U.S. attorneys. The U.S. attorneys decide whether or not to file a civil or criminal case against a suspect. In the most important cases, the attorney general, deputy attorney general, or associate attorney general might participate in the decision-making process.

Antiwar Protest and the First Amendment

As the symbolic leader of the country, the president often makes public appearances around the nation. Protesters sometimes attend these events to voice opposition to the federal government or its policies and actions.

On October 24, 2002, President George W. Bush (1946–) was scheduled to arrive at Columbia Metropolitan Airport in Columbia, South Carolina. At the time, the president was threatening to send military troops into Iraq to overthrow President Saddam Hussein (1937–). Thousands of supporters were at the airport to greet President Bush on his arrival.

Brett A. Bursey was at the airport, too. He carried a sign that said, "No War For Oil." Bursey wished to protest the looming war with Iraq.

Before Bush arrived, police and Secret Service agents told Bursey he would have to take his protest to a "free speech zone" that was far away. Bursey replied that he was in a free speech zone, the United States of America. An airport police officer eventually told Bursey to put down his sign or leave. When Bursey asked if the content of his sign was the problem, the officer answered (according to the New York Times), "Yes, sir, it's the content of your sign."

Bursey refused to drop the sign or leave, so the police arrested him for trespassing. President Bush arrived while Bursey sat in the back seat of a patrol car. Local authorities eventually dropped the trespassing charges. Years earlier, the Supreme Court of South Carolina had ruled that protesters on public property cannot be charged with trespassing.

In March 2003, however, a U.S. attorney for the federal government filed charges against Bursey. He was accused of violating a federal law that allows the Secret Service to control areas the president visits. Eleven members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft (1942–), urging him to drop the charges against Bursey. Echoing Bursey's feelings, U.S. congressman Barney Frank (1940–) of Massachusetts said (according to Warblogging.com), "As we read the First Amendment to the Constitution, the United States is a 'free speech zone."' (The First Amendment is supposed to protect free speech in America.)

At Bursey's trial, the U.S. attorney said federal law allows the Secret Service to require protesters to go to free speech zones. Bursey's lawyer, Lewis Pitts, argued that the federal government was using free speech zones to hide government protest. He said there were Bush supporters near Bursey at the airport who were not asked to go to the free speech zone, and other supporters allowed to attend a rally area separate from the free speech zone. The prosecution argued that all unauthorized personnel, including Bush supporters, were required to leave the area Bursey was in when President Bush arrived. Bursey, the prosecution said, was the only person who refused to leave.

Later that year, a federal judge found Bursey guilty of the charges against him. In January 2004, the judge sentenced Bursey to a fine of $500. Bursey and his lawyer appealed the verdict to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which could either affirm, or agree with, the verdict or reverse it, clearing Bursey of the charge against him. As of early 2005, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals was getting ready to hear oral argument in the case, after which it would make a decision.

Criminal cases are cases filed by the government against people or organizations suspected of violating a federal criminal law. Criminal laws are written to outlaw conduct that is particularly harmful to society, such as murder, rape, and kidnapping. Civil cases involve violations of law that are not criminal. Civil laws generally concern relationships between private persons or between a private person and the government. Examples include tax laws or laws governing contracts, or agreements, between people and businesses. The U.S. government files civil cases as a plaintiff against defendants who have violated a civil law. The U.S. government also defends civil cases when people or organizations sue the government for violating a law. U.S. attorneys represent the federal government in all such cases, whether the government is prosecutor in a criminal case, or plaintiff or defendant in a civil case. (For more information about the conduct of civil and criminal cases, see volume 3, chapter 6, "Daily Operations of the Judicial Branch.")

Enforcement: Drug Enforcement Administration

Law enforcement agencies conduct many enforcement activities other than investigation and prosecution. Examples include the work of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which is part of the Justice Department. Under its Asset Forfeiture program, the DEA seizes profits and property from drug law violations. The profits and property go into a fund to help victims of drug crime and to pay for future law enforcement activities.

The DEA's Demand Reduction program educates the public about the dangers and harms of drug use to individuals, families, and communities. The Diversion Control program works to prevent legal prescription drugs, or medicine, from being sold illegally for recreational drug use.

The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program works with state and local law enforcement officials to block the movement and sale of drugs in areas of the country where such activity is high. The Money Laundering program works to find and seize money from illegal drug activity that criminals are trying to convert into assets that look like they come from legal sources. Under Operation Pipeline, DEA trains state and local law enforcement officials to recognize suspects who might be transporting illegal drugs in private motor vehicles on the nation's highways.

Executive agencies

The executive branch has dozens of agencies that operate independently. This means they report to the president without being part of one of the fifteen executive departments. Agencies typically handle very specific areas of the government's job. Examples of executive agencies include the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Spying: the Central Intelligence Agency

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is America's spy headquarters. Its job is to collect intelligence and share it with government officials. Intelligence is information about military, government, or terrorist activity that could be harmful to the United States.

The CIA is led by the director of central intelligence, who is supported by a deputy director. The president of the United States appoints people to these positions with the advice and consent of the Senate. The director also serves as a member of the National Security Council, the president's closest group of advisors on national security issues.

Daily operations in the CIA involve three main offices. The Directorate of Science and Technology develops technology to use for gathering intelligence. The Directorate of Operations does the actual spying, employing agents who secretly collect foreign intelligence from around the world. Finally, the Directorate of Intelligence analyzes collected intelligence and shares it with the appropriate governmental officials.

Administrative law: the Environmental Protection Agency

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the amount of pollution of air, land, and water in America. The head of the EPA is called the administrator. The president appoints the administrator with the advice and consent of the Senate.

The EPA is an example of an agency that enforces laws passed by Congress. Congress, for example, passed the Clean Water Act to regulate the amount of pollution of water by people, businesses, and government bodies. To enforce the Clean Water Act (and other environmental laws), different EPA offices serve as lawmaker, investigator, prosecutor, and judge.

Acting as lawmaker, the EPA Office of Water adopts regulations concerning water pollution. Regulations are like laws, but they usually are much more detailed. To enforce the regulations, the EPA Office of Compliance and Enforcement investigates suspected violations. If the EPA finds a serious violation and the person or business refuses to correct the situation, an enforcement office can file a civil or criminal action against the offender. Criminal actions are usually limited to cases in which a person or business violates an environmental law on purpose.

EPA administrative law judges (ALJs) hear most cases and decide them just like trial judges in court. ALJs can fine violators, make them clean up pollution, or find that the government has not proven a violation of the law. If a person or business disagrees with the result reached by an ALJ, an appeal can be made to the Environmental Hearings Board (EHB).

Space exploration: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the nation's space agency. The head of NASA is the administrator, who is assisted by a deputy administrator. The president appoints people to both positions with the advice and consent of the Senate.

NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., is divided into offices. The Office of Exploration Systems oversees the development of space exploration projects. The Office of Aeronautics oversees research into aviation and aeronautics technology. This research helps both NASA and defense projects, such as military aircraft and missiles. Other offices at headquarters have specific responsibilities for engineering, health and medical systems, information technology, and management.

Outside headquarters, NASA has many centers and field facilities across the country. The Kennedy Space Center near Titusville, Florida, is where most space launches occur. The Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, manages manned flights, including space shuttle missions and the International Space Station. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages unmanned space missions, such as exploratory satellites and rovers sent to other plants.

Many NASA centers conduct scientific and technological research, testing, and training. These include the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California; the Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, California; the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio; the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City; the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; the Independent Verification & Validation Facility in Fairmont, West Virginia; the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia; Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops, Virginia; the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama; the Stennis Space Center in southwest Mississippi; and the White Sands Test Facility in White Sands, New Mexico.

Regulating the economy: the Federal Trade Commission

Regulatory commissions regulate specific areas of the national economy. Examples include the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Federal Reserve Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

A board of commissioners leads each of the regulatory commissions. Boards contain an odd number of commissioners, often five. The president appoints people to be commissioners with the advice and consent of the Senate.

Commissioners serve fixed terms of office. They cannot be fired by the president except for misconduct specified in the congressional law that controls the commission. Commissions report to Congress on their actions. In theory, this set-up makes regulatory commissions independent from the executive branch. Independence is supposed to allow commissions to enforce laws without concern for loyalty to a particular presidential administration or political party. In reality, individual commissioners have political beliefs, so the work of regulatory commissions becomes political to some extent.

The work of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) illustrates the work of regulatory commissions. The FTC has five commissioners. Their job is to enforce laws to protect consumers from two kinds of business conduct. The first is unfair, deceptive, or fraudulent business activity. The second is business mergers, or combinations, that hurt competition in an industry.

To enforce these laws, the FTC has offices that write rules and regulations. The Bureau of Consumer Protection writes rules related to unfair business activity. The Bureau of Competition writes rules related to mergers. Offices in these bureaus investigate suspected violations of congressional law and FTC rules.

If the FTC finds reason to believe a law or rule has been violated, it can file an enforcement action against the offending company. There are three main courses enforcement can take. First, the accused company can reach an agreement with the FTC, promising to stop the challenged conduct.

Second, the company can dispute the charges in a hearing before an FTC administrative law judge (ALJ). ALJ hearings are much like court cases. If the company does not like the result, it can appeal the ALJ's decision to all five FTC commissioners.

The third thing the FTC can do is file a case in court or ask the appropriate office of the Department of Justice to file a lawsuit. These lawsuits can be for civil or criminal violations of federal trade laws.

The FTC has offices that do other kinds of work. The Bureau of Economics conducts economic research to support the rulemaking and enforcement activity of the rest of the FTC. The Office of Public Affairs informs the public about FTC matters. The Office of Congressional Relations is the FTC's link to Congress, which writes the laws that the FTC enforces and the rules it must obey in its enforcement activities.

For More Information


Congressional Quarterly Inc. Powers of the Presidency. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1997.

DiClerico, Robert E. The American President. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Ford, Gerald R. A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald Ford. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Hart, John. The Presidential Branch. 2nd ed. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, 1995.

Janda, Kenneth, Jeffrey M. Berry, and Jerry Goldman. The Challenge of Democracy. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

McClenaghan, William A. Magruder's American Government 2003. Needham, MA: Prentice Hall School Group, 2002.

McDonald, Forrest. The American Presidency. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994.

Milkis, Sidney M., and Michael Nelson. The American Presidency: Origins & Development. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1999.

Nelson, Michael, ed. The Evolving Presidency. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1999.

Nelson, Michael, ed. The Presidency and the Political System. 7th ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2003.

Rozell, Mark J. Executive Privilege Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

Volkomer, Walter E. American Government. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.


Eaton, Leslie. "Questions of Security and Free Speech: A Flashback to the 60's for an Antiwar Protester." The New York Times (April 27, 2003): p. 15.

Thurmond, J. Strom, Jr. "As Court Ruled, Bursey's Free Speech Not Trampled." The State (January 13, 2004).


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