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The Federal Bureaucracy:
What is it and how is it organized?
Bureaucracy: Definition
The government organizations, usually staffed with officials selected on the basis of experience
and expertise that implement public policy
Hierarchical organization into specialized staffs
Free of political accountability (non-partisan)
– Still affected by Congressional budget and oversight
Ideal scenario: members apply specific rules of action to each case in a rational,
nondiscretionary, predictable, and impersonal way
What does it do?
– From protecting the environment to collecting revenue to regulating the economy
– American bureaucracies implement a $2.174 trillion budget
– Vague lines of authority allow some areas of the bureaucracy to operate with a significant
amount of autonomy
Growth of the Federal Bureaucracy
1789 – 50 federal government employees
2010 – 2.8 million excluding military, subcontractors, and consultants who also work for federal
government (14.6 Million Including all groups)
2,823,777 workers paid $15,10,511,892
Growth mainly at state and local level since 1970
– Federal government began devolving powers and services to state and local government
Total federal, state, local employees – roughly 17.8 million people
Organization of Bureaucracy
A complex society requires a variety of bureaucratic organizations
Four components of Federal Bureaucracy:
– Cabinet departments
– Independent executive agencies
– Independent regulatory agencies
– Government organizations (USPS, FDIC, TVA)
Cabinet Departments
15 departments which serve as the major service organizations of federal government
– State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, HHS, HUD,
Transportation, Energy, Education, Vet. Affairs, Homeland Security
Political appointments (Secretaries/Under Secretaries) at the top who are directly accountable to
the president
– However, staff below under secretaries are permanent employees who may resist change
Independent Executive Agencies
Not located within any cabinet department, but report directly to the President
– This gives it some independence from a department that may be hostile to the creation of the
• Secretary of the Interior vs. Environmental Protection Agency
– Examples: EPA, Office of Homeland Security (before it was made a department in 2002)
Independent Regulatory Agencies
Make and implement rules and regulations in a particular sector of the economy to protect the
public interest
– Congress unable to handle complexities and technicalities required to carry out specific laws
Are they truly independent?
– Suppose to work for public interest, but industries can “capture” them (ICC – International
Code Council)
*Creation of codes and standards for safety in the built environment influenced by
those they regulate
• Leads to pro-business, rather than pro-consumer, behavior
Examples: Federal Reserve Board, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Nuclear
Regulatory Commission
Staffing the Bureaucracy
Natural Aristocracy
– Thomas Jefferson fired Federalist employees and placed his own men in government positions
Spoils System
– Andrew Jackson used government positions to reward supporters
– Bureaucracy became corrupt, bloated, and inefficient
Civil Service Reform
Pendleton Act of 1883
– Employment on the basis of merit and open, competitive exams
OPM – Office of Personnel Management
– Civil Service Commission to administer the personnel service
Hatch Act of 1939
– Civil service employees cannot take an active part in the political management of campaigns
May not run for office, use their job to advance a candidate or manage a partisan campaign
Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinios (1990)
– Court ruled that partisan political considerations as the basis for hiring, promoting, or
transferring public employees was illegal
Political Control of Bureaucracy
Who should control the bureaucracy?
– Bureaucracy should be responsive to elected officials (Congress, the President)
• Members of the bureaucracy are not elected, and must be held accountable for their
• Making them responsive to elected officials give the public a voice in bureaucratic
– The bureaucracy should be free from political pressures
• They should be autonomous
Theories of Bureaucratic Politics
Politics-Administration Dichotomy
– Bureaucracy should be free of politics
Iron Triangles
– Interest groups
– Congressional subcommittees
– Bureaucratic agencies
Issue Networks
Principal-Agent Model
Politics-Administration Dichotomy
Wilson: Bureaucracy is neutral and not political
– Bureaucrats are experts in their specialties and must be left alone to do their job without
political interference
However, people began to realize that politics and administration were NOT separate
– Norton Long: “Power is the lifeblood of administration”
Iron Triangles
Reinforcing relationship between:
– Interest Groups
– Congressional Subcommittees
– Bureaucratic agencies
Policy decisions are made jointly by these three groups who feed off each other to develop and
maintain long-term, regularized relationships
Issue Networks
The relationship between bureaucracy is not as rigid as iron triangle theory would have us
– Also, more than three actors involved in process
• For every issue, there are also a number of political elites who are involved (and who
know each other via the issue)
– Members of Congress, congressional committees, the president, advocacy groups,
and “issue watchers” (like academics or highly interested citizens)
Principal-Agent Model
Who are principals, who are agents?
Principals and agents both seek to maximize their interests
– Principals want to control bureaucracy - Key decision makers - Regulators
– Agents want to have the least amount of control exerted over it - Firms
To keep agents in check, two possibilities:
– Monitoring/oversight
– Minimizing goal conflict
- Incentivizing - Gov’t subsidizes certain business behaviors