Executive Branch Bureaucracy of the United States

Bureaucracy and Public Policy

Nature of Bureaucracy

Any bureaucracy is characterized by having workers with subject area expertise who work to achieve certainty and continuity of results and unity of practice. Critics say that bureaucracies are slow to act, resistant to change, and protective of poor performers.

German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) pioneered the study of bureaucracy, and his ideas promote an understanding of the executive branch bureaucracy. According to Weber, a bureaucracy can be recognized by three features: a strict hierarchical structure, rigid division of labor, and formal chains of authority. These features result in four fundamental characteristics: specialized expertise, certainty, continuity, and unity. Expertise gives the bureaucracy authority to oversee a specific set of functions. Certainty is bound in the idea of rule making and rule following—there are standard procedures to be followed based on tested rules and assumptions. Continuity is ensured through commitment to those procedures and rules, which supersede the desires or ideas of individual participants. Unity is achieved through commitment of all members of the organization to its goals and processes. Bureaucracy, in this view, is a rational actor that aims to provide informed decision-making following reliable procedures.

In practice, bureaucracy can appear to outsiders to be slow, rule-bound, frustrating, and reluctant to change. Critics characterize bureaucratic procedure not as a rational following of rules but as entangling swirls of red tape. Rather than helpers, bureaucrats are often seen as hostile to citizens' needs.

Political scientists point out that some executive branch employees are part of a street-level bureaucracy, which refers to government workers who interact directly with the public. Rather than being in distant offices in Washington, D.C., or other federal locations, these workers are found in communities throughout the country, serving as police officers, teachers, and social workers. While many of these street-level bureaucrats are employed by local or state governments, some are federal employees. Examples are postal service workers and workers in local Social Security offices.

How the Federal Bureaucracy Shapes Public Policy

By virtue of its size, expertise, and employment rules, as well as the lack of specificity in laws, the bureaucracy significantly influences public policy as it creates the rules and guidelines that carry out federal legislation and presidential policy.

In theory, the federal bureaucracy is a neutral instrument of the executive branch that implements or carries out the laws passed by Congress. In practice, federal legislation usually provides only a sketch map or scaffolding for government policy. Typically, laws passed by Congress are enabling legislation, providing the delegation of authority to executive agencies to work out the details of how a law is to be implemented. Implementation is the process of putting a decision, plan, law, or regulation into effect. This means that bureaucrats engage in a highly political process in which they enjoy a substantial degree of latitude.

This process typically involves the drafting and subsequent modification of rules and regulations. Proposed regulations are published in the Federal Register, the daily journal of the federal government, and left open for public comment for a period of time. When they are finalized, the regulations are republished. An important player in this process is the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), the agency given the task of reviewing executive branch regulations. The OIRA is within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and is part of the Executive Office of the President.

Along with the latitude provided by enabling legislation, the bureaucracy also has a key role in implementing a president's policy goals. Presidents must work with the bureaucracy in order to enact their programs or their preferred approach to congressional action. The executive branch bureaucracy thus has a relatively high degree of leverage and influence in the development and implementation of policy. The bureaucracy owes its influence to several factors.

  • The executive bureaucracy is so large that any expectation of its thorough monitoring is unrealistic: there are only a single president and 15 members of the cabinet, while there are some two million federal bureaucrats.
  • The bureaucrats who devise regulations and administer laws and programs are typically far more knowledgeable than anyone else about the details in their specific area of expertise. Such knowledge often gives the bureaucracy a decisive advantage.
  • Civil service regulations make the dismissal of bureaucrats difficult and time-consuming.

Checks on Bureaucratic Power

Several laws that affect how agencies conduct business or permit public review of agency records, congressional oversight, presidential leadership, and judicial decisions all impact the work of the bureaucracy.

It might seem that the bureaucracy's power in the shaping of policy is out of proportion, since bureaucrats are not elected officials. However, several mechanisms operate to control the bureaucracy and limit its power. These forces resemble the checks and balances found in the U.S. Constitution that restrain the power of the different branches of government.

First, a series of laws imposes significant constraints on the powers and operations of bureaucratic agencies. Intended to promote transparency in how the government conducts business, Congress has passed the following laws:

  • The Freedom of Information Act (1966) grants citizens access to all government records, except those with information about military or intelligence activities, trade secrets, and personnel records.
  • The National Environmental Policy Act (1969) requires agencies to submit an environmental impact statement on any action affecting the environment.
  • The Privacy Act of 1974 requires agencies to keep government files about private citizens confidential.
  • The Government in the Sunshine Act (1976) mandates that all government agency meetings be open to the public, with the exception of meetings that cover military information or trade secrets.

Next, besides specific legislation, congressional constraints also include the processes of authorization and appropriation of funds for executive branch agencies. Congressional oversight power may include budgetary controls, personnel controls, and special investigations and public hearings. Congressional committees and their staffs typically amass a significant amount of expertise in specific subject areas. Thus, an individual committee of the Senate or the House of Representatives may function as an effective monitoring force over the activities of an agency in the bureaucracy.

In addition, the White House may prove effective in monitoring the bureaucracy. Particularly important are the prestige and persuasive power of the president. While the president needs cooperation from the bureaucracy, the various agencies also need presidential support. Presidential leadership in setting the government budget, for instance, can affect agency funding. In addition, policy decisions can promote or deemphasize an agency's work.

The proliferation of overlapping responsibilities may also function as an important limiting factor on bureaucratic agencies. For example, the prevention and punishment of drug trafficking fall under the mandate of at least three agencies: the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Customs Service. The need for interdependence in such situations appreciably limits the power of any individual bureaucratic unit.

Finally, the judicial branch of government may occasionally intervene to limit or affirm bureaucratic powers through judicial review. In Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC (1969), for example, the Supreme Court ruled that the "fairness doctrine" of the Federal Communications Commission, requiring a fair and balanced discussion of public issues by broadcasters, was constitutional and consistent with the 1st Amendment. (Nearly 20 years later, the FCC—composed at the time of four commissioners appointed by conservative Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—revoked the doctrine.)

Influence of Interest Groups on Bureaucracies

Hoping to exert influence with government on behalf of a particular point of view or agenda, interest groups play a role in influencing bureaucratic decision making, as does Congress.
The exercise of power by the executive branch bureaucracy can change over time, as a new administration chooses to implement congressional action in ways reflecting the president's policy preferences. Presidential policy is not the sole determinant, however. Bureaucratic powers are often the product of an iron triangle, or the interconnected policy-making relationship of congressional committees, the bureaucracy, and interest groups. An interest group is an association of individuals or organizations that tries to influence public policy. Their efforts are often spearheaded by the work of a lobbyist—an individual who formally registers as an agent of a corporation or interest group and who will attempt to influence governmental policy. Furthermore, interest groups may often band together in an issue network, or an alliance of interest groups or individuals working together to promote a common agenda.
Iron triangles are alliances among congressional committees, bureaucrats, and interest groups.
Interest groups are keenly attuned to the reality that the federal bureaucracy plays a key role in the drafting and implementation of legislation. Therefore, it is generally to an interest group's advantage to lobby federal agencies, as well as Congress, in pursuit of its goals. Interest groups such as industry associations work closely with regulatory agencies during the open-comment period when new regulations are pending. They offer evidence and arguments to convince the regulators to shape the rules in ways that match industry members' goals.