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Executive Branch Bureaucracy of the United States

Regulatory Commissions and Agencies in the United States

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.

A regulatory commission is an independent government body that oversees a specific policy area or industry. Most of the federal regulatory commissions resemble independent agencies in that they are not located within an executive department but function autonomously. Most regulatory commissions are headed by a small group of commissioners (typically five), one of whom serves as chair. The first regulatory commission formed was the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), created in 1887 under the interstate commerce clause of Article 1. It was formed to check abuses of power by railroad corporations that played a central role in the country's economy. Following the model of this agency, other regulatory commissions were added over time in response to a perceived need to address the abuses of corporate power or to protect consumers.

Over time, these commissions can be more or less active depending on the authority granted by Congress and a given president's views on the merits or dangers of regulatory action. As trucks replaced railroads as a major method of transporting goods across the country, Congress gave the ICC authority to regulate the trucking industry. Regulatory commissions can also lose regulatory authority when Congress or an administration or both wants to pursue a policy of deregulation, or the process of reducing government regulation of business. Regulatory commissions can even be dissolved. By the 1990s, the railroad industry was a shell of what it had been a century before, and political leaders saw little need to keep the ICC. Under the ICC Sunset Act of 1995, the agency was dissolved. The regulatory authority that Congress retained was moved to a newly created Surface Transportation Board, part of the Department of Transportation.

The executive branch has other units with regulatory power. Each regulatory agency is part of an executive department that has power to regulate an industry or type of activity based on legislation enacted by Congress. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for instance, implements federal health laws related to food and drug safety, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) has rule-making power as it implements the Medicare and Medicaid programs. These are not independent bodies, like the regulatory commissions and agencies, however, because they are part of a cabinet department.

Key U.S. Regulatory Commissions

Regulatory Commission Year Established Purpose
Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) 1887 (dissolved 1995) Enforced federal laws about transportation crossing state lines
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) 1914 Ensures free and fair competition in industry and protects consumers by policing unfair, deceptive, or anticompetitive business practices
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 1934 Regulates communication by radio, telephone, telegraph, television, email, and other methods of electronic communication both at home and abroad
Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) 1934 Implements federal laws relating to purchase and sale of publicly traded securities, or stocks and bonds
Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) 1972 Enforces federal safety standards for commercial products; employs its influence to coordinate recalls and warnings relating to unsafe products, ranging from children's toys to construction hard hats to cribs for infants
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) 1975 Regulates nonmilitary nuclear energy facilities; protects the public's health and safety regarding nuclear energy and waste