How Cabinet secretaries influence us

How Cabinet secretaries influence us | Paul Hakimata Photography/

With Donald Trump filling his cabinet positions, there’s been much speculation over how these new secretaries will shape the country over the next four years.

Trump has never served in government before and has chosen several secretaries with backgrounds in business instead of politics. American consumers and everyday citizens are curious to see how the new administration will impact them.

“With most agencies, people think about the services that the government provides, but they tend not to think about the people who provide those services,” says Lloyd Leonard, advocacy director for the League of Women Voters.

For example, the Agriculture Department affects the people who run and work in meat packing plants as well as those who buy and eat the food. “There’s a very broad impact to most of these programs, and we don’t always see both ends of that,” Leonard says.

Find out how each department secretary affects you.

Secretary of State

Secretary of State | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nominee: Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO

The most visible of the cabinet posts, the secretary of state is the principal negotiator responsible for U.S. relations with other countries on matters including trade and commerce, international security, international operations and treaties that promote U.S. financial interests.

The secretary promotes the president’s foreign policy initiatives, and Trump has vowed to make radical changes to U.S. foreign policy.

As far as financial interests go, the secretary of state’s responsibilities include negotiating trade treaties, foreign tariffs and exchange rates, all of which impact the prices that consumers pay for goods, ranging from automobiles to potatoes.

“You go to Wal-Mart, and you see the impact of the secretary of state — simply because we have a very vibrant international economy, and the way that it is administered falls in large part to the secretary of state,” Leonard says.

This secretary’s negotiations also influence the costs of exported goods, which can affect jobs and wages in the manufacturing sector.

Secretary of the Treasury

Secretary of the Treasury | BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI /Getty Images

Nominee: Steven Mnuchin, co-chairman and CEO of Dune Capital Management

The secretary of the treasury is responsible for administering the government’s money and can have tremendous, although not exclusive, influence on the operations of the banking system and how the tax structure works.

The IRS reports to the secretary of the treasury. This secretary is typically the lead cabinet member to develop the administration’s tax policies for submission to Capitol Hill. Donald Trump has promised to make significant changes to economic policy, which would include tax cuts.

“Taxes reach almost everybody. So the secretary of the treasury is really a very important person in dealing with both the administration and development of tax code,” Leonard says.

The Treasury Department also buys and sells government bonds, which affects the U.S. monetary system and the money that individuals use every day.

Secretary of Defense

Secretary of Defense | Leigh Vogel /Getty Images

Nominee: Gen. James Mattis, retired Marine general

As the person in charge of the U.S. military, the secretary of defense is tasked with making sure the military is ready to fight in a war and defend the nation.

“In a very fundamental way, the secretary of defense, along with the secretary of state, decide whether we’re going to have a war or not,” Leonard says.

The secretary of defense oversees a massive department with thousands of contractors, and the Pentagon’s spending reaches deeply into the U.S. economy, with the Department of Defense’s budget reaching $585 billion in 2016.

One significant Pentagon agency is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose projects include infrastructure that can protect U.S. citizens from flooding and other environmental threats.

“The corps handles a variety of infrastructure projects that affect people beyond just national security and defense-related issues,” says Sean Cain, associate professor of political science at Loyola University in New Orleans.

One of Trump’s campaign promises was to increase defense spending, and he wants to use the federal government’s powers to carry out more infrastructure projects, which could involve the corps.

Attorney General

Attorney General | The Washington Post/Getty Images

Nominee: Jeff Sessions, U.S. senator from Alabama

As the chief law enforcement officer for the U.S., the attorney general determines how laws are enforced and plays a critical role in determining justice nationwide. That ranges from banking laws to civil rights laws. The director of the FBI reports to the attorney general.

“He or she has tremendous power over the way we live and work together in finance, civil rights and any number of ways,” Leonard says.

For example, the attorney general can decide whether to enforce various civil rights laws, or to bring lawsuits against states that fail to comply with them.

“The way in which the attorney general can affect citizens is huge and seen on the nightly news on a daily basis,” says David Adler, president of the Alturas Institute, a nonprofit that promotes civic education.

Some observers expect that under a Trump administration, the Department of Justice will shift resources away from the civil rights efforts that have been a department focus in recent years, and instead turn its attention to immigration enforcement and anti-terrorism efforts.

Secretary of the Interior

Secretary of the Interior | Bill Clark/Getty Images

Nominee: Ryan Zinke, U.S. representative for Montana

Regulations that determine how oil and gas drilling takes place on federal lands fall under the secretary of the interior’s administration. The secretary also oversees national parks and other public lands.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management within this department is responsible for issuing licenses and leases for offshore drilling, which means this bureau can dictate whether to open up or restrict more areas for drilling.

“BOEM would be a good example of the type of office within a big department that will affect the day-to-day lives of Americans — those who are in the oil industry as well as (with) the price of gas and those who are concerned about climate change and carbon resources,” says Cain, the Loyola associate professor.

Whereas the Obama administration used the Interior Department to promote renewable energy and protections from climate change, Trump has been a strong proponent of opening up more areas to drilling and reviving the coal industry, which critics say could speed up climate change.

Secretary of Agriculture

Secretary of Agriculture | popular business/

Nomination pending

When it comes to the food that Americans eat, chances are that the secretary of agriculture has had a hand in influencing it. The department influences the prices that Americans pay for their food products — everything from wheat to corn to dairy items — as well as how those foods are produced.

“If we talk about a single secretary in the Cabinet who potentially can affect people’s lives, the agriculture secretary has to be right near the top,” Alturas Institute’s Adler says.

The agriculture secretary can move for legislation to provide subsidies to farmers, to sell off public lands for farming and to supervise programs that can help farmers change the way they grow their crops.

In addition, food safety falls within the responsibilities of that department.

“If you like eating uncontaminated meat, you’re probably relying on the department of agriculture and their inspection system,” says Leonard of the League of Women Voters.

The department is also in charge of administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides nutrition assistance to low-income individuals.

With Trump making across-the-board budget cuts a priority, some political observers have expressed concerns that things like SNAP and food inspection programs could end up in the crosshairs.

Secretary of Commerce

Secretary of Commerce | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Nominee: Wilbur Ross, investor

Tasked with building a rapport between the private sector and the White House, the secretary of commerce is considered the voice of U.S. business interests.

“The commerce secretary is, in many ways, the conduit for the president to the business community,” Adler says.

Businesses large and small look to the secretary of commerce for removing what they perceive to be burdensome regulations to improve their opportunities for selling goods and services.

Having run on a pro-business platform, Trump has set an agenda of imposing sizable corporate tax cuts and scaling back on federal regulations governing corporations, although some experts say those regulations shield employees and consumers from abusive practices.

One noteworthy office within this department is the U.S. Census Bureau, as the 2020 Census will be conducted under the next president. The Census Bureau usually provides a short-term boost in part-time hiring for door-to-door and telephone surveying, although there has been talk of scaling back the size of the census and the scope of its work, which could mean fewer of those part-time jobs.

Department of Labor

Department of Labor | Al Seib/Getty Images

Nominee: Andrew Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants (operates Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast food chains)

For the average worker, the Department of Labor can greatly influence workplace issues and practices. The labor secretary can introduce or tweak legislation regulating overtime policies, the minimum wage and working conditions in factories and manufacturing plants.

The department also determines policies on safety and discrimination in the workplace. “Everything regarding the condition of American workers is linked to the secretary of labor,” Adler says.

Trump has been critical of federal labor regulations, which he says restrict growth and suppress wages, and he has come out in support of practices that some say are more favorable to employers than their workers.

His nominee for the position has previously come out in opposition of a higher minimum wage and has criticized the federal regulatory environment.

Department of Health and Human Services

Department of Health and Human Services | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nominee: Tom Price, U.S. representative for Georgia

The size of this department’s budget is comparable to the defense budget, although not quite as big.

“When Americans think about some of the critical programs administered by the federal government, they think about Medicaid and Medicare and Social Security, and a whole host of programs that are in fact governed by Health and Human Services.

“So, the secretary of health and human services plays a role that affects the quality of Americans’ lives in what can be a dramatic way,” Alturas Institute’s  Adler says.

Within this department, the area that has received the most attention recently is the Affordable Care Act. During his campaign, Trump had promised to repeal Obamacare, which he said created an “incredible economic burden” on U.S. citizens.

Some discussions have proposed repealing of Obamacare in 2017 but delaying the effective date for that repeal for as long as three years, according to the website Politico.

HHS also influences prescription drug costs as well as administers Medicare, which provides health care to seniors, and Medicaid, which provides health care coverage to lower-income people.

Department of Housing and Urban Development

Department of Housing and Urban Development | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nominee: Dr. Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon and former 2016 presidential candidate

U.S. housing programs, including federally assisted housing, impact the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who live in such housing.

“But it also affects the people who build that housing and administer that housing, so it certainly affects the real estate market,” Leonard says, adding that the reach of HUD programs can impact the overall economy.

The role of HUD has been particularly important for inner cities across the country. “The precise role of Housing and Urban Development secretary shifts from administration to administration. But at its core is the responsibility of providing decent public housing,” Adler says.

Trump has been critical of policies that require cities to assess whether housing in their communities is racially segregated, a requirement that some conservatives see as government overreach.

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Secretary of Transportation

Secretary of Transportation | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Nominee: Elaine Chao, former secretary of labor

The Department of Transportation’s decisions influences the mobility of Americans on a daily basis.

The department’s vast responsibilities include managing, building and administering the nation’s highways, trains, airports and buses. The Department of Transportation manages federal roads such as interstates, but it also helps pay for state roads and bridges.

“If you’re talking about infrastructure, you’re talking about the DOT,” Leonard says.

Trump has proposed a $1 trillion plan to upgrade the nation’s roads, bridges, tunnels and airports over a 10-year period, and would encourage private investment.

Transportation safety is another key area the department oversees.

“American drivers who want to have safe highways may not realize it, but the secretary of transportation, to some degree, plays a role in proposing measures to make the highways safer,” Adler says. Establishing speed limits is one of those measures.

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Secretary of Energy

Secretary of Energy |  Aaron P. Bernstein /Getty Images

Nominee: Rick Perry, former Texas governor

The secretary oversees the operations of the nation’s nuclear power and other facilities that produce power. This department plays an increasingly important role as U.S. energy policy undergoes change, as the country tries to move away from dependence on fossil fuels and toward clean energy.

“This puts the secretary of energy in a crucible, trying to balance these competing concerns between fossil fuels and demands by Americans for cleaner, greener energy.

“They’re working toward curbing pollution and CO2 emissions, but all the while trying to make energy more affordable and accessible to Americans,” Adler says.

Trump has shown an interest in expanding fossil fuel development, but he’s also shown support for nuclear energy. “It will be interesting to see whether his policy agenda includes government support for renewable energy,” Loyola’s Cain says.

The Energy Department impact is particularly noticeable for Americans who live in colder areas and have to rely on expensive oil to heat their homes, as well as people in the Southwest with constant sunshine and more affordable access to solar energy.

“It’s a department that tries to meet the needs of different regions of the country,” Adler says.  

Secretary of Education

Secretary of Education | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Nominee: Betsy DeVos, Republican donor and school choice advocate

The education secretary’s decisions affect anything that takes place in the realm of K-12 education, as the position oversees the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Trump’s cabinet pick is an advocate of school vouchers, raising the possibility of a voucher or tax credit program to subsidize private school tuition at the local level.

Higher education is also under the education secretary’s governance. The department oversees the Federal Student Aid Office, which potentially impacts the entire higher education industry.

The Obama administration focused on expanding the reach of student loans and having the federal government assume more of the burden for student loans, as opposed to private banks taking on these loans.

 “Having the federal government as the guarantor of student loans has made these loans more affordable,” Cain says.

Trump called student loans an “albatross” around the neck of student debtors. Trump’s administration also could decide to take a more market-based approach and return the risk of student loans to the private sector.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Secretary of Veterans Affairs | DOMINICK REUTER/Getty Images

Nominee: David Shulkin, undersecretary for health of the VA

The VA operates one of the largest hospital networks in the country and provides health care to the nation’s veterans. “This has a huge impact on the quality of life for those who have gone to war for America over the years,” Alturas Institute’s Adler says.

This secretary is often caught in a whirlwind of concerns about budgeting, efficiency and access to health care as men and women who have fought for the country return to the U.S. with injuries.

The department has had problems recently in delivering its services, so every new head of the VA is tasked with making the system more efficient and responsive to the needs of veterans.

“There are many who believe the medical needs of veterans have not been adequately addressed. But it’s also advocating programs for training and educating our veterans,” Adler says.

Secretary of Homeland Security

Secretary of Homeland Security | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Nominee: Gen. John Kelly, a retired Marine general

This secretary is responsible for coordinating the protection of the U.S. from external threats on a daily basis and coordinates activities to make sure terrorists aren’t entering the country and carrying out attacks.

The secretary of homeland security works closely with other Cabinet members involved in the security of the nation, including the secretary of defense.

“Given the fact that Americans constantly fear more terrorist attacks, this means that the hopes of Americans for a safe country are often targeted toward the secretary of homeland security,” Adler says.

Border security was a contentious issue during Trump’s campaign. One of his main campaign promises was to build a wall at the border of Mexico and to deport undocumented immigrants.

“The size and extent of that wall has been in flux from his rhetoric,” The League of Women Voters’ Leonard says.