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The executive branch is not simply a bureaucratic extension of the president's will. Political and governmental influences, such as interest groups, Congress, the media, and public opinion, shape the kind of bureaucracy we have as do structural factors such as the Constitution, the economy, and political culture.

Bureaucracies are generally defined as large organizations, in which people with specialized knowledge are organized into a clearly defined hierarchy of bureaus or offices, each of which has a specific mission. There is a clear chain of command in which each person has one and only one boss or supervisor, and a set of formal rules to guide behavior. Moreover, appointment and advancement are based on merit rather than inheritance, power, or election.

A major advantage of a bureaucratic organization is its ability to organize large tasks. Hierarchical organizations with clear chains of command are able to mobilize and coordinate the efforts of thousands of people. Another advantage of bureaucracies is the concentration of specialized talent that is found in them. Despite the complaints and jokes about bureaucracy, it has considerable advantages as a form of organization.

Political Culture

Americans do not trust government; nor do they think it can accomplish most tasks assigned to it. They believe, on the whole, that the private sector can usually do a better job.

This hostile environment influences the bureaucracy in several ways. The public bureaucracy is surrounded by more statutory restrictions and is subject to more intense legislative oversight than bureaucracies in other democratic nations. Moreover, because civil servants have so little prestige, many of the most talented people in American society avoid jobs in government. Finally, the highest policymaking positions in the executive branch are closed to civil servants and are reserved for presidential political appointees. This is not true in other democracies.

Incoherent Organization

The federal bureaucracy is an organizational hodgepodge. It does not follow the classic pyramidal form. There are few clear lines of control, responsibility, and accountability. Some bureaucratic units have no place at all in relationship to other agencies and departments. A major reason for this is that the bureaucracy was built piece by piece over the years in a political system without a strong central government.

Divided Control

Bureaucratic agencies have two bosses--the president and Congress--who, because of the constitutional separation of powers with checks and balances, struggle for control of the bureaucracy.

 Poor Job Definition

Because of incoherent organization, the lack of a chain of command with clear lines of authority and accountability, and divided control at the top, the U.S. bureaucracy is open and porous. It is possible to get a hearing and a response from bureaucrats without necessarily starting at the top, as one would have to do in many other countries. This provides a fertile ground for interest groups.


Executive Departments and officers are mentioned in the Constitution only in an indirect, offhand way. The Constitution neither specifies the number or kinds of departments to be established nor describes other executive agencies.

Administrative History

The role of the federal government and the scale of bureaucracy have changed because of changes in structural factors, such as the U.S. economy, the nation's population, and the role of America in the world. Until the Civil War, the federal government had few responsibilities and the administrative apparatus of the executive branch was relatively undeveloped.

The problems and opportunities created by rapid population growth, westward expansion, the Industrial Revolution, economic instability, and the emergence of giant corporations in the last quarter of the nineteenth century gradually changed people's thinking about the appropriate responsibilities of government and the size of the bureaucracy.

The rise of large corporations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the problems caused by them, also contributed to a rethinking of the role of the federal government.

The Great Depression forever changed how Americans thought about government. President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress responded to economic collapse, widespread social distress, and serious threats of violence and social conflict with a range of new programs, including government-supported jobs for the unemployed, poor relief, Social Security, regulation of banks and the securities industry, agricultural subsidy programs, collective bargaining, and programs to encourage business expansion.

Needless to say, these initiatives contributed to an expansion in the size of the federal bureaucracy. World War II, the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and America's new role as a superpower, also brought a substantial increase in the federal government's responsibilities and in the size of the executive branch. During the 1960s and 1970s, successful social reform movements and important changes in public opinion convinced political leaders to take on new responsibilities in the areas of civil rights, urban affairs, environmental and consumer protection, and education.


The executive branch includes several different kinds of administrative units. Departments are headed by cabinet-level secretaries, appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. Departments carry out the most essential government functions. The first three were War, State, and Treasury.

Over the years, departments were added as the need arose or as powerful groups in society demanded it. Sometimes departments are formed as a way for a president and members of Congress to signal a new national commitment or to cement political alliances with important constituencies. For example, Lyndon Johnson persuaded Congress to create the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965 and the Department of Transportation in 1967 for these reasons. Subdivisions within cabinet departments are known as bureaus and agencies.

Government corporations, independent regulatory commissions, and independent executive agencies comprise the rest of the executive branch. Government corporations are agencies that operate in a market setting and are organized much like private companies. They can sell stock, retain and reinvest earnings, and borrow money. They are created to perform some crucial economic activity that private investors are unwilling or unable to perform. Amtrak, for instance, was created to provide passenger rail service after the virtual collapse of the private customer rail industry.

Independent regulatory commissions, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Interstate Commerce Commission, are responsible for regulating those sectors of the economy where the free market does not work properly to protect public interests. Agencies which do not fit into any of the departments and are not corporations or regulatory commissions are referred to as independent executive agencies.

Executing the Law

Although the term executive branch suggests the branch of the federal government that carries out the law, executing the law is not always easy. It is not always clear what the law is. To be sure, Congress sometimes passes a law with clearly stated goals and procedures to guide the actions of the president and the bureaucrats in the executive branch.

Oftentimes, however, Congress passes laws that are vague about goals and short on procedural guidelines. Congress may do so because its members believe that something should be done about a particular social problem but don't know how to solve the problem or disagree among themselves as to the best solution.

Rule Making

A great deal of law is made by bureaucrats because Congress often gives bureaucratic agencies the power to write specific rules. Because the problems government must face are complex, Congress tends to create an agency, specify the job to be done, and then leaves it to the agency to use its expertise to accomplish the task. Although some critics believe that Congress delegates too much authority to the executive branch, it is difficult to see what alternatives it has. Congress can change the rules written by bureaucrats if they drift too far from congressional intent or constituent desires.


 Congress gives some executive branch agencies the power to conduct quasi-judicial proceedings in which disputes are resolved. The decisions of an administrative law judge have the force law unless they are overturned for a federal court on appeal. The National Labor Relations Board is an example of a bureaucratic agency which adjudicates disputes between labor and management on matters concerning federal labor laws.

Merit Services

The executive branch has three personnel systems: the career civil service, separate merit service in specific agencies, and political appointees. From the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 until the late nineteenth century, the executive branch was staffed through what is known as the spoils system or patronage system. The shortcomings of this system (which were displayed during the Civil War) led to the establishment of a system of appointment to executive branch posts on the basis of merit. Today, competitive examinations are used to determine merit for about 58 percent of all federal employees.

Civil Servants

In strictly demographic terms, the civil service is filled with people who are similar to other Americans. Educational levels, regional origins, average incomes, and age distribution almost exactly match that of the general population. Their political beliefs and opinions are similar to those of other Americans, though they tend to be somewhat more Democratic and slightly more liberal than the national average. A few anomalies do exist, however. For example, women and minorities are over represented in the lowest civil service grades and underrepresented in the highest grades.

Political Appointees

The highest policymaking positions in the federal bureaucracy such as department secretaries, assistants to the president in the White House Office, and leading officials in the Central Intelligence Agency do not enter government service by way of competitive merit examinations but by presidential appointment.

These top patronage positions, in theory at least, allow the president to translate his electoral mandate into public policy by permitting him to put his people in key policymaking jobs. To be sure, presidents want to appoint experienced people to these posts who are familiar with the work of the department or agency, but policy and ideological agreement with the president and party loyalty are equally important.

Unlike the vast majority of federal government employees covered by civil service regulations, top political appointees are not representative of the American people. One study covering the years 1897 to 1973 found that over 90 percent of all cabinet officials belonged to the social elite
or to the business elite.

Bureaucracy v. Democracy

Popular Sovereignty

Popular sovereignty refers to the fit between what the people want and what the government does. It requires that the bureaucracy be accountable to the people. While scrutiny by the public is an important instrument of democratic control, most Americans have no opinions about bureaucratic agencies.

There are, however, some exceptions to this rule. Some bureaucratic agencies, perhaps because of their size or their impact, or the media attention that they receive, are constantly in the public eye. The Internal Revenue Service is one such agency.

A disaster or string of disasters can focus public attention on an agency. A handful of agencies like the FBI are adept at shaping public opinion in their favor. Public opinion is also sometimes conveyed to bureaucrats by social movements. For the most part, public opinion controls the federal bureaucracy only indirectly and intermittently. For popular sovereignty to be effective, it usually must work through elected officials such as the president and the Congress who are themselves accountable to the people.

The president's leadership position is recognized in the Constitution's grant of executive power, its designation of the president as commander in chief of the armed forces, and its charge that he ensure that the laws be faithfully executed. In reality, however, the president has only limited abilities to control the executive branch. Virtually every modern president has been frustrated by the discovery that he cannot assume that bureaucrats will do what he wants them to do.

There are several reasons for this. One has to do with the sheer size and complexity of the executive branch. There is so much going on, in so many agencies, involving the activity of tens of thousands of people, that simply keeping abreast of what is going on is no easy task. Moreover, because of civil service regulations, presidents have no say about the tenure or salary of most  bureaucrats. Bureaucratic agencies are insulated against presidential efforts to control them because of agency alliances with powerful interest groups.

There are ways that the president can encourage bureaucratic compliance outside of a crisis or national emergency. The president's prestige as the only nationally elected political leader makes his wishes hard to ignore. A popular president who can speak for the nation is difficult to resist. If a president is careful in filling appointive positions with people who support him and his program, he greatly increases his ability to have his way.

The president's power as chief budget officer of the federal government is also a formidable tool of administration. No agency of the federal bureaucracy, for example, is allowed under the law to make its own budget request directly to Congress. But even with all of these factors in his favor, the president is still relatively limited in his ability to act as chief executive. Except for his control over the military, his ability to demand obedience from bureaucrats is not impressive.

The president and Congress share control over the executive branch. Congressional tools of control, in fact, are at least as formidable as those of the president. Congress legislates the mission of bureaucratic agencies and specifies the details of their organization. Congress can also alter agency policy or behavior to a great extent by controlling the budgetary process. Oversight is the way in which Congress assures itself that the laws it has passed are carried out in a way that is satisfactory to it.

Because Congress is a highly fragmented and decentralized institution with power dispersed among scores of subcommittees, confusion about congressional intent is common. A skilled administrator can often play off these competing forces against each other and gain a degree of autonomy for his or her agency, thus reducing accountability and control.

Political Equity

In several respects, the bureaucracy meets the standard of political equality. There is no reason to believe that federal agencies treat classes of citizens unequally on a regular basis, although there are occasional incidents in which some have been treated unfairly. The American people are fairly well represented, both in a demographic sense and in terms of their outlooks, among federal workers, except at the level of political appointees. In another important respect, however, the standard of political equality is not met, namely in the overrepresentation of some interest groups. In most cases, the interests that are over represented are business interests.

Political Liberty

It is difficult to reach a firm conclusion about the role of the federal bureaucracy in protecting and sustaining political liberty because it is composed of so many agencies. For the most part, these agencies go about their business without affecting political liberty one way or the other.

Nevertheless, there are at least two things that worry many observers. First, the combination of bureaucracy and contemporary computer technology gives the federal government enormous information-gathering capabilities. In the hands of unscrupulous officials, this information might be used to intimidate individuals. Second, while federal agencies do not normally intrude on the liberty of Americans, enough of them have done so to cause concern among those who cherish freedom.

Common Criticisms

 Always Expanding

Although the number of federal civilian employees expanded dramatically in the early twentieth century, it has remained relatively stable since the mid-1960s, at roughly 2.8 million. Government does more and spends more money today than it did in 1950, but it does so with about the same number of employees.

 Not Effective

We define effectiveness as the ability to carry out missions and reach goals. The record of the federal bureaucracy with respect to effectiveness is mixed. The framers, you will recall, were willing to trade effectiveness for inoculation against an overbearing and threatening government. Moreover, the federal bureaucracy was not designed as a rational machine with a clear chain of command, as in most democratic nations. It was instead, an architectural hodgepodge, with parts added on as the political process demanded. Finally, while most of us are absolutely certain that the federal bureaucracy cannot be as effective in meeting its goals as private organizations, the evidence for such a belief is not overwhelming.

Wasteful and Inefficient

Waste in government is an enduring theme in American politics. In actuality, however, the opportunity for agencies to waste money is limited, since the bureaucracy has discretionary control over only about five percent of the total federal budget. The rest is earmarked, or distributed to beneficiaries by formula or entitlement. In addition, the use of the small discretionary pot is closely monitored and encumbered with strict rules on its use.

Buried in Red Tape

We have all, at one time or another, felt stymied by rules and procedures, aggravated by delays, and frustrated by forms. But how can we be sure that there is more red tape in the federal bureaucracy than there is in other large institutions? The charge of red tape is almost always hurled at agencies that are carrying out policies which we don't like. For example, following federal procedures for the disposal of dangerous chemicals may not be what chemical companies would want to do on their own, but Americans have shown that they want strong environmental protection laws.

Reforming the Bureaucracy

Downsizing the Bureaucracy

People who worry about the size of government have proposed several changes, including hiring freezes, restrictions on the creation of new departments and bureaus, and even the elimination of bureaucratic units. The most popular reform idea of the Reagan years was privatization, the transfer of many government functions to the private sector.

Making Bureaucracy More Effective

Many people believe that, for the federal bureaucracy to achieve its goals, policymakers must first provide clear policy signals. Others suggest greater discretion for civil servants as they carry out their responsibilities.

Protecting Against Abuses of Power

Many critics believe that a bureaucracy the size and shape of our present one, while necessary in a modern society, is potentially dangerous. Closer control over the bureaucracy by elected political bodies and by clear legislative constraints has been the preferred solution. There are many legislative enactments that try to keep bureaucratic activity within narrow boundaries. 

Reformers have proposed two additional innovations. The first innovation would require that each federal agency have an ombudsman, an official whose job is to hear citizen complaints about bureaucratic action (or inaction) and to seek redress of grievances. The second innovation would offer protection for whistleblowers, those bureaucrats who report abuses of power, corruption, financial mismanagement, or other official malfeasance.

Increasing Popular Participation

Many people worry that federal bureaucrats go about their business without the public having much say in what they do. Without citizen input, it is argued, bureaucrats lose touch with the people whom they serve. Citizen participation in agency affairs has been pushed by some reformers as a solution.

Enhancing Democracy

There are, finally, proposals to enhance democracy in bureaucratic affairs. For the people to rule, popular sovereignty, political equality, and political liberty must flourish. Popular sovereignty requires that the elected representatives of the people closely control the bureaucracy. Popular sovereignty implies that administrative discretion be narrowed as much as possible and that clear directions and unambiguous policies be communicated from elected officials to bureaucratic agencies.

Some observers have argued that the best way to achieve this is through increasing the powers of the president so he can, in fact and not just in name, be the chief executive. Another way to enhance the ability of elected leaders to issue clear directives and coherent policies is to have them speak with a more unified voice. But this, we have seen, is unlikely to happen in our constitutional system of separation of powers and divided government.

The most significant reform to enhance political equality involves diminishing the power and influence of interest groups. Because the interest group system is the most significant factor in American political life that works to undermine political equality, a change in this system is necessary if political equality is to be enhanced.

To the extent that bureaucratic intrusions on political liberty involve autonomous agencies following their own agendas, such as the FBI under Hoover, enhancing the control of elected officials over them would represent an important safeguard to liberty. Such reforms would not, however, completely guarantee the protection of liberty from bureaucratic action. What remains to us in the face of violations of our rights is our constitutional tradition, that is, our willingness to stand up for our rights and the rights of others.