The federal bureaucracy organizes employees to achieve specific goals. They attempt to do so efficiently and effectively however their goals and procedures are components of a continual struggle for power and this often leads to ineffective and inefficient behavior. Often called "red tape," many have attempted to determine how the bureaucracy might overcome inefficiency and improve service to the public. Vice president Al Gore pointed out areas of inefficiency including preoccupation with standard operating procedures, wastefulness, lack of incentives to improve, and a relative lack of penalties for poor performance, in his report Creating a Government That Works Better and Costs Less. However, bureaucracies are difficult to reform and the federal bureaucracy is enormous and complex. The chapter deals with the structure, organization, and the characteristics of the federal bureaucracy.
The Organization of the Executive Branch
The federal bureaucracy, like many, falls into to organizational categoriesline agencies and staff agencies. Line agencies execute policy and provide services while staff agencies gather information for use by the chief executive officer. In the federal government, line agencies are executive departments, government agencies, government corporations, independent regulatory commissions, and other central services and control agencies. Staff agencies in the federal government are the presidents cabinet and the Executive Office of the Presidency.
The executive branch is divided into fifteen cabinet departments (the Department of Homeland Security is the newest cabinet department, formed to meet the exigencies flowing from the war against terrorism). The secretaries that head them, the deputy secretaries, the undersecretaries, and the assistant secretaries are all appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate.
Departments vary in size and function. The Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, and Justice perform governmental functions while others serve particular segments of society such as labor. Departments are usually divided into bureaus headed by chiefs. The function of these bureaus depends on who they serve, what they do, and the geographic area(s) they serve. While federal bureaus usually have local offices in Washington DC, the majority of employees serve in field offices that are focused upon specialized tasks.
Agencies (e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency) are used for specific governmental functions that are considered too limited to warrant department status. Major officials in agencies are also appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. Government corporations (e.g., the U.S. Postal Service) combine aspects of private business with government agencies. Usually used when the government is providing a service, government corporations are designed to be run with minimal interference by the president or Congress, although they are subject to government policies and receive government subsidies. Each government corporation has a government board appointed by the president with advice and consent of the Senate.
Independent regulatory commissions (e.g., the Federal Communications Commission) are created by Congress and given broad authority to regulate aspects of the nations economy. They are administered by a group of commissioners who are appointed for staggered but fixed terms by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. These commissions are quite powerful in that they enforce laws, establish regulatory policies, and settle disputesexercising executive, legislative, and judicial powers.
Independent central services and control agencies serve to keep the government running in areas of personnel and the administration of federal buildings, transportation, and purchasing. These agencies include the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration.
Staff agenciesthose that gather information and provide adviceinclude the fifteen executive departments in the presidents cabinet and the Executive Office of the President. The fourteen executive departments in the cabinet implement presidential programs and attempt to influence presidential policies. Prior to the creation of the Executive Office of the President, the cabinet used to be much more influential and worked more closely with the president. The Executive Office of the President was created in 1939 in an effort to help the president deal with the administrative responsibilities of the office. It is composed of several agencies designed to provide staff assistance to the president. Among these are the White House Office, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Council of Economic Advisors, and the National Security Council. Because the White House Office reports directly to the president, their selection does not require the approval of Congress. Many believe that the most important of these is the OMB because it serves to synthesize and combine information to prepare the presidents annual budget proposal.
The Federal Bureaucrats
Although the size of the federal bureaucracy grew from 1,000 employees in 1790 to over 2,800,000 in 1979, the number of civilian employees began to decline after the end of the cold war and has since decreased to about 2,600,000. Federal bureaucrats serve in a wide variety of positions and geographic locations both in the United States and around the world.
Early in the development of the federal bureaucracy, government jobs were awarded as a result of loyalty and friendship to the president in office and the political party in power. Called the spoils system, this practice often led to unqualified individuals serving in positions of power. With the passing of the Pendleton Act in 1883, the spoils system was replaced by the merit system. Under the merit system, applicants seeking a civil service position are now required to take a standardized examination that ensures that employees are hired according to ability. The Classification Act of 1939 established the General Schedule or GS salary classes. In 1979 the Senior Executive Service (SES) was established to reward service and encourage excellence.
Political executives are appointed by the president to serve as department secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, agency heads, ambassadors, and commissioners of independent regulatory agencies. The Senate must confirm most of these nominations.
Sources of Bureaucratic Power
Size, expertise, triangular configuration, and delegation of power all represent significant sources of bureaucratic power. Budgetary size is over $2.5 trillion. Expertise has grown along with the issue and program complexity. Bureaucrats are often called upon by Congress as respected sources for specific and technical information. Because of this acknowledged expertise, a three-way, or triangular configuration, of influence developed between the federal bureaucracy, congressional committees, and interest groups in related fields. This has often been referred to as the iron triangle. Congressional delegation of broad grants of power and responsibility to the bureaucracy has also enlarged bureaucratic influence. These broad grants of power derived from legislation that used very general language and left it to federal departments and agencies to interpret and draft rules after the legislation was passed. The body of agency rules known as administrative law has been created by the bureaucracy rather than Congress.
Restraints on the Bureaucracy
Restraints on bureaucratic power and influence derive from the constitution and from current law. Presidential power, congressional power, and the federal courts serve to limit the power of the bureaucracy. Additionally, private groups, media, and the bureaucracy itself also serve to limit bureaucratic authority.
The president constrains the bureaucracy through his appointment power, removal powers, his power to significantly change the organizational structure of the executive branch, and through the exercise of leadership to guide the bureaucracy and keep it within certain bounds.
Congress controls the bureaucracy by setting limits on appropriations to agencies, by regulating and administering certain programs, by deregulating within policy areas, by occasionally eliminating an agency, and by passing legislation to control agencies and change the decisions of agencies. In 1966 Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act. This has required agencies to open files to persons requesting specific documents, although it does exempt certain types of documents that deal with national defense, foreign policy, trade secrets, and others that deal with the confidentiality of individuals or groups. Congress also exercises oversight of bureaucratic activities by investigating executive units. This occurred in 1987 when a joint committee of Congress investigated the Reagan administrations secret sales of military equipment to Iran and use of the proceeds to aid rebel forces in Nicaragua. Members of Congress also help their constituents to deal with bureaucratic agencies by performing casework for individuals in their districts.
Legal challenges to bureaucratic decisions and actions can be taken to the federal courts. The federal courts have overturned environmental decisions made by the EPA and by the Department of the Interior.
Whistleblowers also provide a check on bureaucratic waste, fraud, and abuse. Individual employees can reveal the mistakes or misdeeds of the agency under the protection of the Whistleblowers Protection Act of 1989.
Media can affect executive officials in that they influence public opinion, reflect public opinion, investigate corruption, and expose wrongdoing in the bureaucracy. Private groups can oppose bureaucratic action. The competition for federal funds and influence limits bureaucratic power. Finally, the values of the bureaucrats serve as a check on corruption.