The federal government can appear so huge as to boggle the mind, but it’s really just a need for a clear understanding of the chains of command. In the compliance world, our day revolves around the executive branch, whether on the federal or the state level. While the legislative branch may enact broad, sweeping legislation, those laws come through in relatively long intervals. By contrast, the implementation of laws often happens in short, staccato clips within the executive branch.
First, remember that federal, state, and local governments are comprised of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Separation of power theory, handed down to us by our founding fathers, says that a division of government powers among three, equal branches, keeps any one branch from overtaking our rights as people.
At the top of the federal executive branch is, of course, the President.
The very next layer down under the President is where the confusion begins. There is a Cabinet and there are Departments. Think of the Cabinet as a group unto itself, as they are largely an advisory board to the President. The overlap is that the Cabinet consists of “Members,” which include the heads of all Executive Departments. The heads of Executive Departments are, generally, “Secretaries,” except for the head of the Department of Justice, who is the “United States Attorney General.”
The second layer beneath the Cabinet and the Executive Departments are Agencies, which are generally headed by “Directors.” For example, beneath or as part of the Department of Justice are 40 Agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Here’s an organizational diagram to assist your structural understanding:
President of the United States
(… 23 Cabinet Members …)
including U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder Executive Departments
(… 15 Executive Departments …)
including Department of Justice
headed by U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder
Executive Department Agencies
(… 40 Executive Department Agencies …)
including Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
headed by Acting Director B. Todd Jones
Just as with a large corporation, Executive Department heads and their Agency heads have a great deal of authority to promulgate rules and regulations. Ultimately, Executive Departments and Agencies are all accountable to the President, again, no differently than a corporation.
If you’re interested in reading more, visit this page of the White House website.
In short? When we’re talking about FFL compliance, we’re talking about accountability to the President of the United States.