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 trillion budget

–  Vague lines of authority allow some areas of the bureaucracy to operate with a significant amount of autonomy


Max Weber


Growth of the Federal Bureaucracy

•      1789 – 50 federal government employees

•      2000 – 2.8 million (excluding military, subcontractors, and consultants who also work for federal government)

•      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 21 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) at the top who are directly accountable to the president

–   However, staff 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 agency

•   Secretary of the Interior vs. Environmental Protection Agency

–  Examples: EPA, Office of Homeland Security (before it was made a department last year)


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)

•    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

–   Civil Service Commission to administer the personnel service

•      Hatch Act of 1939

–   Civil service employees cannot take an active party in the political management of campaigns

•      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 actions

•   Making them responsive to elected officials give the public a voice in bureaucratic operations

–  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 believe

–  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

–  Agents want to have the least amount of control exerted over it

•      To keep agents in check, two possibilities:

–  Monitoring/oversight

–  Minimizing goal conflict