5 The Executive Branch

Gwen Sinclair

Learning Objectives

  • Understand different types of presidential documents and issuances and the most important presidential publications
  • Gain awareness of secondary sources for presidential documents
  • Develop an understanding of the history and use of presidential libraries and gubernatorial papers
  • Become familiar with treaties, executive agreements, and other international agreements
  • Understand the most important components of the Executive Office of the President
  • Become familiar with the organization of the executive branch
  • Gain awareness of the principal resources related to treaties

Public Papers

In the age of Twitter, when the president’s utterances appear online as short posts, it’s difficult to remember that for most of U.S. history, presidential issuances have appeared in the form of full-length speeches, statements, addresses, orders, and the like. They may have been reproduced in newspapers or periodicals, broadcast live on television, or republished in books.

Certain categories of presidential documents have remained consistent throughout time. The president’s addresses before Congress, such as the State of the Union address, inaugural addresses, executive orders, proclamations, and speeches have been issued by all presidents. Prior to 1957, these documents were not consistently compiled for easy retrieval. That year, the Office of the Federal Register began to compile presidential documents into a dedicated publication, Public Papers of the Presidents. It covers the presidents from Hoover to the present day (an exception is President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose papers had been published previously). Papers of other presidents have been compiled at various times with varying levels of comprehensiveness.

In 1965, a companion to Public Papers of the Presidents, entitled Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, began as a way to provide more timely access to presidential documents. It lives on as the online-only Compilation of Presidential Documents (CPD). A list of the categories of presidential documents that appear in Public Papers of the Presidents is available on the GPO website. In CPD, one can find lists of all of the meetings, announcements, speeches, orders, and other official communications made by the president. It even mentions when the president makes a statement on his personal Twitter account. Fact checkers will appreciate the transcripts of speeches and press conferences. Did President Trump really call former vice president Joe Biden “ineffective and weak?” Yes, it’s there in black and white, in Remarks on the Resignation of Secretary of Labor R. Alexander Acosta and an Exchange With Reporters Prior to Departure for Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

Presidential Records and Related Laws

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 (PRA) was an outgrowth of debate about the extent to which presidents control their papers or records. The act established that presidential papers are public property and not the private property of the president, and therefore they must be placed under the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and made accessible through a presidential library. A president’s papers can be requested through the Freedom of Information Act beginning five years after he or she leaves office. However, there are provisions for withholding documents longer than five years if they meet certain criteria. Researchers can also request that records be declassified, but that process can take a year or more. In some cases, declassification requests can take 10 years or longer to process.[1] Read more about declassification in Chapter 17.

Electronic Presidential Records

Presidents have used electronic systems for records since Ronald Reagan’s term in the 1980s. Initially, no thought was given to the notion that these electronic records should be treated the same as paper documents. When Reagan left office, NARA argued that electronic records were not presidential records subject to PRA. A lawsuit established that electronic records were, indeed, presidential records as defined in PRA. Nonetheless, both the George H. W. Bush administration and the Bill Clinton administration fought against transferring electronic files. The issue appears to have been settled, because more recently, when presidents have left office, their records in any format have been transferred to the custody of NARA.[2] Currently, at the end of each president’s term, NARA captures the president’s official websites. However, links to external websites and documents are not captured, so a historical web page of a former president or executive branch agency may not be fully functional.

Presidential Libraries

Public Papers of the Presidents does not include a host of other types of documents that are not public, such as internal memos, correspondence, drafts of speeches, and documents relating to national security. These documents can be found in presidential libraries or other collections of presidential papers such as those found at the Library of Congress.

Presidential libraries vary widely in organization and operation. Fourteen presidential libraries are part of the Presidential Library system and are overseen by the Office of Presidential Libraries in NARA. These fourteen libraries are the official repositories for presidential papers as outlined in the Presidential Records Act. Other presidential libraries, such as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, are operated by private foundations. Consequently, they may not offer much in the way of official papers. It is important for librarians who work with government information to be aware of the extent to which presidential documents are publicly available. Furthermore, awareness of the online availability of presidential records is necessary when assisting patrons who are seeking unpublished presidential material. It’s also helpful to have a basic knowledge of the names of the presidents and the approximate dates of their terms in office. The House of Representatives maintains a list of presidents, vice presidents, and sessions of Congress

Presidential Executive Orders

Presidents are given executive powers by Article II of the Constitution and through statutory law. Executive orders (EOs) are considered a type of presidential lawmaking and usually cite the law under which the president claims authority to issue the order. Most EOs originate in executive branch agencies and are transmitted to the president for his issuance.

EOs are commonly used in the following situations:

  • Organization and management of executive branch
  • Establishment of new agencies
  • Federal personnel, e.g. General Schedule for pay
  • Budgeting
  • Armed forces
  • Tariffs and trade agreements
  • Public lands
  • Revocation or amendment of existing EOs


Here are some well-known executive orders:

The disposition tables maintained by the National Archives give the status of each numbered EO, i.e., whether it is still in effect, has been amended, or has been revoked by a subsequent EO. Unfortunately, the tables have not been updated since 2016.

Presidential Proclamations

There is not a neat dividing line between actions made using EOs vs. proclamations. Proclamations are often in nature. Typically, proclamations are used to commemorate or designate special days, weeks, or months, or to exhort us to remember something, like Pearl Harbor Day. They have served as the means of announcing statehood granted to U.S. territories, additions of territory to the United States, and treaties and other international agreements.

In Hawaiʻi, presidential EOs have been used to designate federal lands for particular purposes such as military bases, lighthouses, or national parks. For instance, EO 10436 placed the island of Kahoʻolawe under the Secretary of the Navy. Of course, these designations can also come via Congressional legislation. For example, the area encompassed by Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument was protected through a combination of presidential executive orders, proclamations, federal laws, and state laws.

Locating Presidential Executive Orders and Proclamations

Before 1907, EOs were issued without numbers and often were unpublished, so it was difficult to locate many early EOs or even to be aware of their existence. Beginning in 1938, EOs and presidential proclamations have been published in supplements to Title 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations. In 1946, the Administrative Procedures Act mandated that EOs be published in the Federal Register. Some EOs are classified, in which case they are listed by number only, with no title or description. No single source comprehensively indexes all EOs.

Whitehouse.gov provides us with the text of orders issued by the sitting president, but of course it doesn’t list EOs or proclamations issued by previous presidents. EOs can also be found in the Compilation of Presidential Documents and other sources of presidential issuances. The annual index to the Federal Register lists all of the executive orders and proclamations issued that year. Title 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations annually compiles all of the EOs and proclamations.


Federal register index
Figure 1. Example of a page from the Federal Register index (1942) [text version]

The American Presidency Project (APP), maintained by the University of California at Santa Barbara, is a convenient way to find EOs, proclamations, and other presidential documents. Its search interface allows for keyword searching, searching by document type, and searching by number. Bear in mind that APP is incomplete and does not include all of the EOs or proclamations for all of the presidents.

Wikisource hosts the text of many EOs but it does not contain all published EOs for all presidents. A useful feature is that the text of each EO links to other EOs that it affects or by which it was affected.

United States Statutes at Large volumes have a special section at the end of each volume with the texts of proclamations issued during the corresponding session of Congress.

ProQuest offers the subscription database Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations 1789-2017 and sells the CIS Index to Executive Orders and Proclamations printed indexes and corresponding full-text microfiche that covers 1789-1983. The CIS compilation is noteworthy for its comprehensive coverage, because the publisher pulled together EOs and proclamations from an impressive number of different executive branch agencies’ records.

The Ever-Changing Executive Branch

The organization of the federal government is not cast in stone. The president, working with Congress, has great latitude to create, combine, and eliminate agencies. Agencies come and go, although the underlying functions may continue under a different agency. For example, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security was established, taking on some functions of several cabinet-level agencies including Treasury, Transportation, and Justice. The Trump administration once proposed combining the Department of Education with the Department of Labor, and there have been proposals to eliminate the departments of Agriculture, Education, and Energy in recent years.

Executive branch agencies may be categorized as follows:

  • Cabinet-level agencies led by an appointed Secretary (example: Department of the Treasury)
  • Independent agencies (example: NASA)
  • Government corporations (example: AMTRAK)
  • Boards, commissions, and other presidentially-designated bodies (example: Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board)

Just like corporations, government agencies are renamed to reflect changes in their mission or functions. For instance, what was once the Immigration and Naturalization Service evolved into Citizenship and Immigration Service, and the Department of the Army was originally the War Department. Aside from splitting and merging, some agencies have been bounced from one Cabinet-level agency to another. The Coast Guard may be the most extreme example, having been at various times part of Treasury, Navy, Transportation, and Homeland Security. In the online environment, this means that each time an agency moves, the content of its historical web pages may not be migrated, although they are usually captured in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

Guides and Directories

The word manual might conjure visions of a set of instructions. However, the United States Government Manual does not prescribe; rather, it broadly describes federal agencies and their organization. The Manual’s Changes section describes terminations of agencies, name changes, and so forth and can help you to determine what happened to a “dead” agency or one that changed its name. Of course, you can also use Library of Congress name authority records to track agency name changes, but not every subagency, bureau, or office has an authority record.

Significantly, the Manual doesn’t list local or regional offices of federal agencies. Furthermore, it becomes outdated instantly due to the constant churn in the leadership and organization of federal agencies. It is usually fairly easy to find organizational charts and contact information for agency higher-ups on the agency’s website. However, it can be much more challenging to locate lower-level staff or people who work at regional or local offices of federal agencies.

Another important resource is Congressional Directory, which lists Cabinet members and leadership of executive branch agencies, boards, and commissions, in addition to members of Congress, leadership of legislative branch agencies, judges in the federal judiciary, international organizations and their leadership, and foreign diplomatic offices in the U.S.

The Plum Book (official title: United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions) lists presidential appointees, the type of appointment, and sometimes the individual’s salary. Because it is published every four years immediately following each presidential election, it is out of date as soon as it is published.

The publication Register of the United States once listed all of the federal employees (in later years, some categories of employees were excluded) and is a useful source for understanding the past organization of the federal government and for genealogical research.[3]

Prior to the online age, agencies usually published printed telephone directories that listed some or all of their leaders and staff members. Currently, most agencies list only the top leadership on their websites, and it can be very difficult to find a telephone numbers or email address for other employees. Patrons often want email addresses for specific government officials, but increasingly the trend is for agencies to provide a contact form that directs all inquiries to a central customer service portal.

USA.gov maintains a current list of federal agencies in all branches of government.

Executive Office of the President

The Executive Office of the President encompasses several agencies that report directly to the president:

  • Council of Economic Advisers
  • Council on Environmental Quality
  • National Security Staff
  • Office of Administration
  • Office of Management and Budget
  • Office of National Drug Control Policy
  • Office of Science and Technology Policy
  • Office of the United States Trade Representative
  • Office of the Vice President

The most important of these are the the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the national security staff. First and foremost, OMB prepares the administration’s annual budget (discussed below). OMB reviews federal regulations and forms to prevent them from being excessive (although if you’ve filled out a government form recently, you will wonder what it was like before the Paperwork Reduction Act). Occasionally, patrons ask for old versions of government forms, which are often referred to by the numbering system used by OMB. OMB also issues circulars, which are instructions to agencies on matters like financial management, information technology, and grants to state and local governments. Surprisingly, not all circulars are available online. OMB is also responsible for the standardization of data collection and reporting across the federal government. Among other things, OMB defines the racial categories used in government data.

Case Study: The Office of Management and Budget and OMB Circulars

By Ricky Mashita

Question: I am part of a private consulting company that recently was awarded a fairly large federal grant through the state for a bridge construction project. Our team was brought in to oversee all financial and administrative procedures in regards to compliance and audit purposes for the duration of this project. I have never worked on a federal project before, but one of my coworkers mentioned something called OMB circulars. I took a look at these OMB circulars and am thoroughly confused. How can I find these OMB circulars and what exactly are they? Can you help me locate which sections I will need knowledge of?

Learning Objectives:

  • Define the OMB circulars and examine its relevance and application in real life scenarios
  • Demonstrate how to effectively navigate and find current and past OMB circular information
  • Examine the OMB circulars and their importance in government infrastructure

To answer the question, comprehensive knowledge of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the OMB circulars as a resource had to be located and provided. The OMB website was primarily used, because that is where the most current OMB circulars are located. However, it is necessary to use supplementary resources to find information about the superseded OMB circulars and additional information about the OMB.

The OMB is responsible for five processes within the executive branch. These are:

  1. Budget development and execution.
  2. Management, including oversight of agency performance, human capital, Federal procurement, financial management, and information technology.
  3. Regulatory policy, including coordination and review of all significant Federal regulations by executive agencies.
  4. Legislative clearance and coordination.
  5. Executive orders and presidential memoranda.

This question mainly deals with the second OMB process, agency management. The OMB circulars can be defined as instructions or information issued by OMB to federal agencies. Comprised of policies and procedures, the circulars serve as guidelines for what is and isn’t acceptable for federal agencies or departments. [4]

To find the relevant policies, will need to look at OMB circular A-123, which contains standardized guidelines for the management of federal agencies, and OMB circular A-133, which references Audits of States, Local Governments and Non-Profit Organizations. [5]

However, closer inspection of OMB Circular A-123 reveals there was a memo, Memo M-17-26, that was published by OMB Director Mick Mulvaney on June 15, 2017 that modifies many policies set forth in the A-123 Circular. This memo puts into place changes that are meant to streamline and remove unnecessary, duplicative and overly administrative policies. These changes are currently still in progress, and as a result have not yet been incorporated into the OMB Circulars located online, so at the moment M-17-26 must also be cross referenced with A-123 when checking for compliance. There is an appendix at the end of the document that references the areas that were eliminated or modified. [6]

Along with this, all the OMB Circulars related to administration for the use and audit of federal grant funds by non-profit organizations; state, local and tribal governments; and colleges and universities were combined in December 26, 2013 to form the OMB super circulars, which are defined in Title 2 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Grant Agreements (2 CFR 200). This was also done with the intent to streamline and reduce unnecessary, duplicative, or excessive administrative policies. The list of OMB Circulars that were affected and superseded by the introduction of the super circulars include:

  • OMB Circular A-21: Cost Principles for Educational Institutions
  • OMB Circular A-87: Cost Principles for State, Local and Indian Tribal Governments
  • OMB Circular A-89: Federal Domestic Assistance Program Information
  • OMB Circular A-102: Grants and Cooperative Agreements with State and Local Governments
  • OMB Circular A-110: Uniform Administrative Requirements for Grants and Agreements with Institutions of Higher Education, Hospitals and Other Non-Profits
  • OMB Circular A-122: Cost Principles for Non-Profit Organizations
  • OMB Circular A-133: Audits of States, Local Governments and Non-Profit Organizations[7]

To further clarify, in the case of the above question, where the patron is dealing with both the state and federal grant funds, the priority list of policies is as follows: 2 CFR 200 (for any grant policies) -> Memo M-17-26 (for OMB Circular A-123) -> OMB circulars. From there the patron should continue to check with local and state policies to make sure that further compliance is met.


Intelligence Agencies

Naturally, intelligence agencies are of great interest to many researchers, but insufficient public information exists about their activities. As far as we know, there are 16 intelligence agencies at present:

  • Military
    • Defense Intelligence Agency
    • National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (formerly Army Mapping Service, Defense Mapping Agency, and National Imagery and Mapping Agency)
    • National Security Agency
    • Army Intelligence
    • Air Force Intelligence
    • Naval Intelligence
    • Marine Corps Intelligence Activity
    • Coast Guard Intelligence
  • Non-military
    • Central Intelligence Agency
    • National Reconnaissance Office
    • Federal Bureau of Investigation
    • U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence
    • Department of Homeland Security
    • Department of State
    • Department of the Treasury
    • Drug Enforcement Administration

While much of the ouvre of intelligence agencies is classified (more about this in Chapter 17), you should be aware of some key publications. The CIA-produced Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) was a program that provided translations of broadcast news stories from foreign countries. Its companion, Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS), published translations of periodical articles. Sadly, these series are no longer published, but researchers occasionally request older FBIS or JPRS documents. Research libraries frequently have FBIS/JPRS print or microform publications, and some subscribe to Readex’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) Daily Reports, 1941-1996 database that provides the full text of FBIS documents.


Cover of Broadcasting stations of the world showing a globe with a radio tower
Figure 2. Foreign Broadcast Information Service. 1960). Broadcasting stations of the world. Washington, D.C.: FBIS.

Some cabinet-level agencies have intelligence components, such as the Treasury Department, which investigates money laundering, and the Department of Energy, which is responsible for the security of nuclear power plants and nuclear fuel. A source for declassified CIA documents is the State Department’s series Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), which reproduces diplomatic correspondence. The FRUS series has occasionally been subject to the CIA’s efforts to suppress certain volumes. The CIA objected to their release because they documented the U.S.’s interference in foreign countries and cast an embarrassing light on the agency. For example, volumes concerning Guatemala, Iran, and Indonesia were the targets of efforts to withhold information or prevent the publication of the volumes, and ultimately were published with redactions.[8]

The FBI has published Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) releases for well-known persons on its website, The Vault. For other releases, users must visit the agency’s FOIA reading room (read more about FOIA in Chapter 17).

Government Contracting

Contractors increasingly perform much of the work of the federal government. For example, Edward Snowden, the notorious leaker who revealed the National Security Agency’s data collection on U.S. citizens, did his leaking as an employee of contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Contractors handle everything from building aircraft to running libraries to processing security clearances.

Contract Opportunities, formerly FedBizOpps and before that, Commerce Business Daily, is where federal contracting opportunities are advertised. It is part of SAM.gov (described below), operated by the General Services Administration (GSA), which is responsible for federal procurement. USAspending.gov lists the biggest government contractors, but it doesn’t give detailed information about what services or goods are provided, in part because so many of the contracts deal with national security or defense. In addition to GSA, Data.gov contains several datasets related to small businesses that contract with the government.

The GSA-administered Federal Acquisition Regulation and the Federal Travel Regulation govern executive branch agencies’ contracting for goods and services. Most large agencies have their own procurement divisions, such as the Defense Logistics Agency, that work with contractors. In addition, members of the public who want to purchase land, forfeited assets, or surplus federal government property can find those through the GSA.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a legislative branch agency, is headed by the Comptroller of the United States, who is responsible for hearing disputes over contracts. GAO issues decisions on contested contracts. In addition, it publishes reports and provides testimony to Congress about the performance of government programs, including those handled by contractors, so it is an important source of information about federal contracts.


Patrons sometimes have a fuzzy notion of what kinds of grants are available from the government. For example, many people believe that the government provides assistance with mortgage payments. Actually, government housing programs typically involve loan guarantee programs so that people who ordinarily wouldn’t qualify for a loan are able to qualify, or housing subsidies such as vouchers for rent payments. Similarly, government assistance for small businesses comes not in the form of start-up grants but rather loan programs. Disaster assistance from agencies like FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is provided in the form of in-kind help like food, clothing, and shelter, or operates on a reimbursement basis, so the victims must pay for disaster recovery expenses and then request reimbursement through the state office of civil defense.

It’s not surprising that the public would be confused, considering the plethora of websites that purport to instruct people how to get free money from the government. An internet search for “free government money” will result in a list of sites where the public can “apply” for grants. Of course, all that these sites do is sell instructions on how to apply, which people could obtain themselves for free. In fact, there are so many scams related to “free government money” that the Federal Trade Commission set up a web page to help consumers spot them.

To prepare for helping members of the public, librarians must stay informed about both federal and local government programs and should be familiar with the scope of government grant programs. The website SAM.gov, which replaced the long-running annual publication Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance and other acquisitions-related sites, lists funding opportunities for individuals, organizations, and governments. You can search by keywords such as organic to search for grants that might support organic farmers. There is some overlap between the GSA-operated SAM.gov and Grants.gov, which is managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It’s also helpful for librarians to maintain awareness of tax credit programs for energy conservation like insulation or solar panels, since these programs can be very confusing to patrons, who may believe these are grant programs rather than after-the-fact tax credits.

Inspectors General

Inspectors general (IGs) are the internal watchdogs of federal agencies. They investigate internal affairs, conduct audits, and issue reports of their findings. However, these internal reports are frequently not published and must be requested through FOIA. Published IG reports may contain redactions. IGs also issue annual reports listing their activities, such as the Semiannual Report to Congress of the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Small Business Administration. IGs may also prepare handbooks for their investigators, such as the Marine Corps Inspector General Program Investigations Guide.

The Federal Budget

The federal budget process is quite complex and can seem inscrutable and opaque. There are many steps along the way from the submission of a budget request by an agency to the passage of the budget in the form of appropriations laws in Congress. The basic steps are:

  • The OMB provides budget guidelines to executive branch agencies. In May of the year preceding the budget year it issues a budget guidance memorandum, and in July, it issues Circular A-11, “Preparation, Submission, and Execution of the Budget.”
  • Agencies submit first drafts of their budget requests to OMB in September.
  • OMB reviews the first drafts and returns them to the agencies in November.
  • Agencies revise and submit second drafts or appeals in December.
  • OMB takes each agency’s budget request, reviews and modifies it, and publishes requested budgets for all of the executive branch agencies plus the legislative and judicial branches in the Budget of the United States Government. Although it is, by law, supposed to be submitted by the first Monday in February, in fact many presidents have submitted the budget late.
  • The House and Senate budget committees review the request and together pass a concurrent resolution on the budget, which is non-binding, by April 15. The budget resolution lists aggregate totals for revenue and expenditures, policy statements, and instructions.
  • The House and Senate appropriations committees divide the budget among the twelve appropriations subcommittees. The subcommittees then draft appropriations bills, conduct hearings, and amend each bill. The final version of the bill is reported and a House or Senate report is issued by June 30. These reports are essential for understanding the thinking of each committee as it finalizes the appropriations legislation.
  • The House and Senate appoint members to a conference committee, which reconciles the differences between the House and Senate versions of the appropriations legislation. The final version goes to the full House and Senate for passage.
  • Upon passage in Congress, the legislation goes to the president for his signature.

The budget is divided into two categories: mandatory and discretionary spending. Mandatory spending encompasses what are often called “entitlements”—Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other social welfare programs. Discretionary spending is further divided into defense and non-defense.

In recent years, it has frequently happened that the House and Senate have been unable to pass a budget by the deadline. A few times, this impasse has resulted in a government shutdown because no funds were authorized to continue government functions beyond the end of the fiscal year (September 30). To remedy the situation, Congress has passed one or more continuing resolutions to keep the government operating on a short-term basis while negotiations take place.

To better understand the budget process, an example is helpful. Let’s examine the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s FY2020 budget request.[9]  The FWS’s budget, as submitted by the president, decreased funding for some species recovery programs, including State of the Birds activities, research on White Nose Syndrome (a fungal condition that affects bats), and the Wolf Livestock Loss Demonstration Program.

The House Appropriations Committee increased funding for these programs, stating that it was concerned about the gray wolf, endangered Hawaiian plants and birds, freshwater mussels, and butterflies.[10] The report went on to state the Committee’s expectations for FWS and required FWS to report back to Congress within 60 days of the law’s enactment. The Senate, in a related bill (S. 2580), went even further in advocating for specific species and measures to protect them. The Senate report also directed FWS to incorporate traditional tribal knowledge into its decisions about endangered species.[11] These reports are good examples of how Congress exerts the “power of the purse” to direct agencies.

The appropriations law that eventually passed, the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 (Public Law 116-94) was not approved by Congress until December 2019, just in time for the holidays and well after the September 30 deadline.

The budget requests of the legislative and judicial branches are submitted to the president and are included in his budget, but they do not undergo review by OMB. Appropriations for the judicial and legislative branches are included in the consolidated appropriations bills along with those for executive branch agencies.

Appropriations laws sometimes place requirements on executive branch agencies. For instance, they may require an agency to submit annual reports about the status of a particular program An example is the provision in the Bob Stump National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2003 (116 Stat. 2458, 2646), which states, “The Secretary of Defense shall submit … an annual report on the conduct of military operations conducted as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.” Such reports are not always published. The laws may also specify how funds are to be spent or may prohibit certain  expenditures. A well-known example is the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of Medicaid funds for abortion services.

The Budget of the United States Government is an annual publication that is eagerly awaited by the press and public because it outlines the budget priorities of the president and executive branch agencies. Unfortunately, the organization of the budget documents make it difficult to figure out how much is spent on particular categories of goods. It is a programmatic budget that breaks expenditures down into functions rather than listing line items like computers, vehicles, or personal services contracts.

The budget has been issued in a variety of configurations over the years. In recent years, the budget has been issued in three volumes: the Budget, Analytical Perspectives, and Appendix. The Budget volume explains the president’s budget priorities. Analytical Perspectives provides more detail about spending increases and decreases and specific budget strategies the president intends to employ, such as revising the tax code. Finally, the hefty Appendix volume provides detailed breakdowns of each agency’s projected expenditures. You can use the Appendix to find out how much the Navy intends to spend on combat aircraft, for example. However, there is not a specific breakdown for the numbers of each type of plane it will purchase.

Older volumes of the budget can be found on the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’s site FRASER. There are a few other sites that provide different ways to look at government expenditures. USAspending.gov allows you to view purchases from specific vendors for specific equipment. For example, one could search for ATVs to see which agencies purchase them and which vendors sell them to the government.

Boards, Committees, and Commissions

The President may establish boards, commissions, blue ribbon panels, investigatory commissions, and other bodies, often of limited duration. These bodies typically produce a few reports, but their output is limited.


  • President’s Advisory Council on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
  • President’s Council on Physical Fitness
  • Action against Mental Disability: The Report (Rockefeller Report)
  • Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (Rogers Commission)

Presidents have created special advisory committees and commissions to investigate accidents, recommend changes in laws, provide expert advice on social issues, and oversee specific government functions. In some cases, these bodies are of limited duration, while standing committees may continue to operate for decades. Advisory committees’ reports sometimes carry great weight, as was the case when the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident released its report on the cause of the disaster. In other cases, a committee issues a written report, but its findings are disregarded. Less commonly, the committee sinks without a trace. For instance, President Trump’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, created in 2017, was dissolved in 2018 without having completed its investigation into voting fraud in the 2016 presidential election.[12]

Often, reports of such committees and commissions are named after the chair. Thus, the report about the Challenger accident is known as the Rogers report, after chair William P. Rogers. Sometimes, as with the 9/11 Commission (official name: National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States), the popular name refers to the subject matter, not the chair of the commission. For less well-known reports, Popular Names of U.S. Government Reports lists the official and popular names of government reports created by presidential commissions, etc. It was formerly issued in print and is now a searchable database maintained by Indiana University at Bloomington.


Cover of report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Photograph of African-American men facing riot police.
Figure 3. U.S. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. (1968). Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders [Kerner Report]. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

A possibly confusing subset of federal government agencies is government corporations. Federal corporations are federally chartered entities that handle policy issues dealing with commercial activities. Here are some government corporations you may have heard of:

  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
  • National Railroad Passenger Corp. (AMTRAK)
  • U.S. Postal Service
  • Export-Import Bank

Another strange animal is the congressionally chartered organization, or CCO. According to the GAO, “CCOs are congressionally created entities that are in part privately funded but operate under some level of government oversight.”[13] The Smithsonian is a good example. It’s partly privately funded, but is considered part of the government, so some of its publications are government documents (not, notably, Smithsonian magazine). Other CCOs include Gallaudet University and Tennessee Valley Authority. In addition to CCO’s, another category of organizations have received honorific charters, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Boy Scouts of America.

Defunct Agencies

When agencies cease to exist, we refer to them as “dead.” While many such agencies are long forgotten, librarians receive a surprising number of questions about them, usually from patrons who are looking for archival information. For example, a researcher who was investigating pageants commemorating the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth sought federal documents about the Washington Bicentennial Commission (1932). The War Relocation Authority, which oversaw World War II internment camps, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided employment on public works projects during the 1930s and 1940s, are very hot topics at present. It’s important for librarians to be attuned to community interest so that we can anticipate their needs. One way to do this is to maintain copies of finding aids for archival collections of interest, even if the library doesn’t have copies of the material itself.

Treaties and Agreements

In addition to appointing the leaders of executive branch agencies, the president is the United States’ chief diplomat. As such, he has the authority to negotiate and enter into international agreements or treaties with other countries or organizations such as the United Nations. International treaties outside the U.S. are covered in chapter 15.

Treaties are subject to approval by the U.S. Senate. After a treaty has been approved and ratified, the president typically issues a proclamation to announce the U.S.’s signing. Researchers seeking the text of treaties or international agreements may ask whether the U.S. is a signatory to a particular multilateral treaty or they may seek information about the negotiation of a treaty or agreement.

Treaty Terminology

What’s the difference between a treaty and an international agreement?

In the United States, the word treaty is reserved for an agreement that is made “by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate” (Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution). International agreements not submitted to the Senate are known as “executive agreements” in the United States, but they are considered treaties and therefore binding under international law.[14]

An example of an international agreement is Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. A bilateral treaty is an agreement between two countries, whereas a multilateral treaty is an agreement between multiple countries. Treaty texts are available in various publications. Table 1 lists the most common sources for the full texts of treaties. For a more in-depth discussion of other sources, consult Morehead.[15] Law libraries usually have access to the HeinOnline Treaties and Agreements Library. Westlaw, Lexis, LLMC Digital, HathiTrust, and Internet Archive are additional sources for treaties. To determine whether a treaty is still in effect, consult Treaties in Force, the annual listing of treaties still in effect to which the U.S. is signatory.

The texts of some treaties and agreements have not been published, such as a mutual defense treaty with Japan and an agreement on arms sales to Iran that was the subject of the Iran-Contra investigation. There are undoubtedly other secret treaties and agreements that carry details such as weapons placement or handling of prisoners. Trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership have been negotiated in secret, which is one reason why many people oppose such agreements.

Table 1. Availability of Full Text of U.S. Treaties and International Agreements[16]


Dates of Coverage

Treaties and Other International Acts Series (TIAS) online


Treaties and Other International Acts Series (TIAS) print


United States Treaties and Other International Agreements (UST) (bound compilation of TIAS) print


Treaty Series (TS) print predecessor to TIAS


U.S. Statutes at Large (Stat.) print or online


Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America, 1776-1949 (Bevans) print or online


Executive Agreement Series (EAS) print


American Indian Treaties

Another important set of treaties is those established with American Indian tribes, which are currently documented in Title 25 of the US Code. Keppler’s Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties is the definitive work on historical treaties.[17]

Librarian’s Library

Bookheim, L. W. (2017). Reports of U.S. presidential commissions and other advisory bodies: A bibliographic listing. Getzville, NY: W.S. Hein & Co., Inc.

A comprehensive list of the reports of presidential commissions, this source also exists as a database that will be continuously updated.

Gale Research Co. (2018). Encyclopedia of governmental advisory organizations (33rd ed.). Detroit, Mich. : Gale Research Co.

The encyclopedia represents “a comprehensive guide to permanent, continuing, and ad hoc advisory committees reporting to the President of the United States, Congress, and U.S. government departments and agencies” (Publisher). It also lists the publications of existing and historical organizations.

McAllister, W.B., Botts, J., Cozzens, P. & Marrs, A.W. (2015). Toward “thorough, accurate, and reliable”: a history of the Foreign Relations of the United States series. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus-history 

This document provides a historical overview of the evolution of FRUS and the legal and political issues surrounding its publication.

Nelson, M., Ed. (2012). Guide to the presidency and the executive branch (5th ed.). Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.

A guide to all things presidential, this two-volume set covers powers of the president, elections, organization and operation of the executive branch, relations between the president and the legislative and judicial branches, and the history of the presidency.

Saturno, J. V. (2020). Introduction to the federal budget process. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service. https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46240

This CRS report, updated periodically, explains the history of the federal budget process and its legal basis. It also details the many steps involved, from agencies’ budget justifications to the appropriation legislation’s progress through the chambers of Congress. It includes a helpful glossary of budget terms.

  1. Jones, N. (2016). How classified presidential library records are released to the public. The Federalist 52, 12.
  2. Theoharis, A. G. (Ed.). (1998). A culture of secrecy: The government versus the people’s right to know. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
  3. Deeben, J.B. (2004). The Official Register of the United States, 1816-1959. Prologue 36(4). Available from https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2004/winter/genealogy-official-register.html
  4. OMB Circulars. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/information-for-agencies/circulars/
  5. U.S. Office of Management and Budget. (2004). OMB circular A-123. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/circulars/A123/a123_rev.pdf ; U.S. Office of Management and Budget. (2003). OMB circular A-133. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/circulars/A133/a133.pdf
  6. U.S. Office of Management and Budget. (2017). Memo M-17-26. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/memoranda/2017/M-17-26.pdf
  7. U.S. Office of Management and Budget. (2019). Chapter II Office of Management and Budget circulars and guidance. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/circulars/A110/2cfr215-0.pdf; U.S. Office of Management and Budget. (2016). OMB super circularhttps://www.cottoncpa.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/OMB-Super-Circular-Doc.pdf
  8. Jones, M. & McGarr, P. (2013). Real substance, not just symbolism? The CIA and the representation of covert operations in the Foreign Relations of the United States series. In Moran, C. R. & Murphy, C. J. (Eds.). Intelligence studies in Britain and the US: Historiography since 1945 (pp. 65-89). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  9. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2019). Budget justification and performance information, fiscal year 2020. https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/uploads/fy2020_fws_budget_justification.pdf
  10. U.S. House of Representatives. Committee on Appropriations. (2019). Report, together with minority views (to accompany H.R. 3052). H.rp. 116-100. https://www.congress.gov/congressional-report/116th-congress/house-report/100/1
  11. United States. Senate. Committee on Appropriations. (2019). Report (to accompany S. 2580). S.rp. 116-123. https://www.congress.gov/116/crpt/srpt123/CRPT-116srpt123.pdf
  12. Taylor, J. (2018). Trump dissolves controversial election commission. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2018/01/03/575524512/trump-dissolves-controversial-election-commission
  13. U.S. Government Accountability Office (2013). Congressionally chartered organizations: Key principles for leveraging non-federal resources. https://www.gao.gov/assets/660/655080.pdf
  14. U.S. Senate. Committee on Foreign Relations (2001). Treaties and other international agreements: The role of the United States Senate: A study. Senate Print 106-71. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1. https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/CPRT-106SPRT66922/CPRT-106SPRT66922.
  15. Morehead, J. (1999). Treaties and agreements. In Introduction to United States Government Information Sources (6th ed.). Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
  16. U.S. Department of State. Finding agreements. https://www.state.gov/s/l/treaty/text/index.htm
  17. Kappler, C. J. (1903). Indian affairs: Laws and treaties. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.


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The Executive Branch Copyright © 2020 by Gwen Sinclair is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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