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Executive Branch Bureaucracy of the United States



The U.S. executive branch bureaucracy, under the direct or indirect authority of the president, is both large and highly influential. There are five different kinds of entities in the executive branch: executive departments, independent agencies, regulatory commissions and agencies, government corporations, and presidential commissions. They are involved in many different areas of American life and society. The first and most senior part of the federal bureaucracy consists of the executive departments, each headed by a member of the president's cabinet. The second type, independent agencies, are bodies that oversee specific activities, such as environmental protection or space exploration. The third type, regulatory commissions and agencies, are independent bodies that regulate and oversee specific policy areas or industries. The fourth type, government corporations, are corporate bodies that are owned or partly owned by the government and that provide services. The fifth type is presidential commissions, which are temporary groups typically formed to investigate and report on a problem or issue. Methods of staffing the bureaucracy have changed over time, shifting from a system that rewarded loyal members of political parties to a test-based, nonpartisan approach. The bureaucracy can influence public policy but is subject to important constraints, including presidential policy preferences, congressional oversight, and the influence of interest groups.

At A Glance

  • The federal bureaucracy has grown dramatically in size, scope, and influence from small beginnings of about 1,000 employees in the 18th century to millions of workers in the 21st.
  • The 15 executive departments, known collectively as the cabinet, make up the most senior level of federal bureaucracy in the executive branch. The department heads advise the president and work to carry out the administration policy agenda, though members of the Executive Office of the President have supplanted that role since the late 20th century.
  • The four original executive departments—the Departments of State, Treasury, Defense, and Justice—oversee vital central activities of the federal government, including foreign relations, government finances, national security, and the administration of justice.
  • Added from the 1840s to the 1910s, the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, the Interior, and Labor focus on particular areas of the economy or natural or human resources.
  • Added from the 1950s to the early 21st century, the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Veterans' Affairs, and Homeland Security are involved in efforts to promote health and education; manage housing, transportation, and energy policies; provide benefits to veterans of the armed services; and oversee intelligence gathering, efforts against terrorism, and immigration policies.
  • Independent agencies, which carry out a specialized government activity, are units of the federal bureaucracy that are staffed by experts.
  • Regulatory commissions and agencies are independent bodies that oversee and regulate specific aspects of the economy, such as product safety, or industry, such as telecommunications.
  • Government corporations such as Amtrak serve the public, are owned by the government, and are tied to a revenue stream.
  • Presidents occasionally name temporary commissions to investigate and report on a problem or issue, though those reports do not always result in policy action. Examples are the commissions formed to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
  • Employment in the federal bureaucracy has shifted from being a function of partisan reward to a merit-based system that provides strict rules for hiring, pay, discipline, and the end of employment.
  • 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 bureaucracies are slow to act, resistant to change, and protective of poor performers.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.