The Bureaucracy

The Bureaucracy

The Size and Power of the

A bureaucracy is a large organization composed
of appointed officials in which authority is divided among several
managers. Bureaucracy is an obvious feature of all modern societies,
but American governmental bureaucracy is distinctive in three ways.
First, political authority over the bureaucracy is shared among
several institutions. Second, most federal agencies share their
functions with agencies of state and local government. Finally,
America’s adversary culture means that the actions of bureaucrats are
often fought in court.

The Constitution makes little mention of the
bureaucracy, other than to give the president power to appoint
various sorts of officials. In 1789 Congress gave the president power
to remove officials without congressional assent, but the question of
who (if anyone) would actually control the bureaucracy has been hotly
contested throughout American history.

Throughout most of American history, patronage
was the chief means of determining who would hold federal jobs.
Congress was the dominant institution, the president usually
accommodated congressional preferences in appointments, and thus
appointments were made to reward local supporters of Congress members
or to build up local party organizations. By the middle of the
nineteenth century there were a lot of federal jobs: from 1816 to
1861 the number of federal employees increased eightfold, with the
Post Office accounting for most of this increase. The Civil War and
postwar period saw the creation of many additional bureaus. A strong
commitment to laissezfaire meant that these agencies did not for the
most part regulate, but rather served specialized constituencies such
as farmers or veterans. The bureaucracy as we know it today is the
product of the New Deal (whose programs gave broad but vaguely
defined powers to agencies) and of World War 11 (during which the
government made use of the vastly increased revenues the income tax

The Supreme Court has interceded to restrict
political patronage on constitutional grounds. The first step was
taken in Elrod v. Burns (1976) in which the Court noted that
important First Amendment interests in the protection of free speech
must be taken into consideration in patronage firings. According to
the majority, the public’s interest in the effective implementation
of policy “can be fully satisfied by limiting patronage dismissals to
policy-making positions.” Four years later, in Branti v. Finkel, the
Supreme Court elaborated by explaining that “the question is whether
the hiring authority can demonstrate that party affiliation is an
appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the office.”
As such, the mere fact that a bureaucrat occupied a policy-making
position no longer constituted the ultimate factor in a patronage
firing. This line of cases was brought to conclusion with Rutan v.
Republican Party of Illinois (1990), when the Court extended the
Branti standard to “promotion, transfer, recall, and hiring decisions
based on party affiliation and support.” Thus patronage has reached
the point of nearing political extinction.

People often think of big government in terms
of the size of the bureaucracy, but the number of civilian federal
employees has not been growing since World War 11. What has increased
is the number of indirect federal employees-those working for state
or local governments or private firms funded by federal programs.
However, the power of the bureaucracy is a function not of its size
but of the degree to which appointed officials have discretionary
authority: the ability to choose courses of action and to make
policies not spelled out in advance by laws. The vast increase in
expenditures channeled through the bureaucracy, as well as the vast
expansion in the number of regulations issued during the past thirty
years, shows that the bureaucracy has indeed become very

Control of the

Federal bureaucrats exercise a great deal of
power, especially when operating under discretionary authority. It is
therefore important to understand what influences bureaucratic
conduct. In general, four factors explain the behavior of
governmental officials:

1. Recruitment and
Once hired, a federal bureaucrat normally
serves a oneyear trial period before being granted tenure. A
tenured bureaucrat is extremely difficult to fire, with the
average termination process (including appeals) lasting about two
years. Thus, in practice, almost no one is ever fired and
executives develop informal strategies for dealing with
incompetent employees.

The Senior Executive Service (SES) was
created in 1978 to provide presidents with a core group of
neutral, professional managers in the upper grades of the
bureaucracy. To ensure competence, members of the SES-who join on
a voluntary basis-are subject to easier transfer and firing
procedures as well as to pay increases determined by performance.
The SES has not worked out as intended; almost no member of the
group has been fired, and salary raises have been fairly

In spite of the merit system, hiring in
federal agencies remains political, especially at the middle and
upper levels. An agency can hire a particular individual on a
name-request basis, giving rise to the buddy system. This practice
allows the maintenance of issue networks based on shared policy
views; bureaucrats in consumer-protection agencies, for example,
may hire people from Naderite groups. The end-product of the
recruitment and reward structure is that most bureaucrats become
quite comfortable in their position and defensive about their
agency, adopting an agency point of view.

2. Personal attributes.
Bureaucrats at the middle and upper levels of government are not
representative of the American public. They tend to be highly
educated, middle-aged white males. But none of these factors
explains much about the attitudes bureaucrats hold. Surveys have
found top-level bureaucrats to be slightly more liberal than the
average voter but not as liberal as members of the media. Yet even
this generalization is a bit misleading. Attitudes tend to vary
depending on the agency for which a bureaucrat works. Those
employed by activist agencies (FTC, EPA) are much more liberal
than those who work in traditional agencies (Commerce).

While attitudes differ, they do not
necessarily influence bureaucratic behavior because much of
bureaucratic work is governed by standardized rules and
procedures. It is only where roles are loosely structured that a
civil servant’s attitudes come into play.

3. The nature of the job. Some
agencies have a sense of n-tission, a clear doctrine that is
shared by its members. Such agencies (the Forest Service, the FBI,
and the Public Health Service) are easy to manage and have high
morale but are hard to change and are resistant to political
direction. To be sure, a sense of mission probably infiltrates

most agencies to some degree; a survey by Kenneth Meier and Lloyd
Nigro revealed that federal bureaucrats believe in the importance
of their agency’s work. Thus the mission of the agency may become
synonymous with the public interest in the minds of many
bureaucrats. An agency’s mission, however, must be accomplished
within an array of laws, rules, and regulations-dealing with
hiring and firing, freedom of information, accounting for money
spent, affirmative action, environmental impact, and
administrative procedures. Agencies also have overlapping and even
conflicting missions. These characteristics make controlling the
bureaucracy difficult, no matter which party occupies the White

4. External forces. All
government bureaus must cope with seven external forces: executive
branch superiors, the president’s staff, congressional committees,
interest groups, the media, the courts, and other government
agencies. All federal agencies are nominally subordinate to the
president. In practice, agencies that distribute benefits among
significant, discrete groups, regions, or localities within the
United States (such as HUD, Agriculture, and Interior) tend to be
closely overseen by Congress. Others (such as State, Treasury, or
justice) are more under the control of the president. Bureaucrats,
like people generally, desire autonomy-to be left alone, free of
bureaucratic rivals and close political supervision. They may
obtain autonomy through the skillful use of publicity to build
public support, as did the FBI and NASA. A less risky strategy is
to develop strong allies in the private sector that will provide

political support in Congress. However, this limits the freedom of
the agency; it must serve the interests of its clients. Thus the
Maritime Administration supports high subsidies for the shipping
industry, and the Department of Labor could never recommend a
decrease in the minimum wage.

External forces influence agency decisions
in the form of the so-called iron triangle-the informal policy
network involving an agency, an interest group, and a
congressional committee. Often, though, an agency will be faced
with conflicting interest group demands. The National Farmers
Union favors high subsidies to farmers, whereas the American Farm
Bureau Federation takes a free-market position. Organized labor
favors strict enforcement by the Occupational Safety and Health
Adn-dnistration, whereas business is opposed. In these instances,
issue networks emerge. These are an array of groups and
individuals, often contentious, and split along ideological,
partisan, and economic lines.

Congress has a forn-ddable array of powers to
deal with the bureaucracy. First, congressional statutes establish
the existence of an agency and occasionally specify in detail how
agencies should behave. Lately, however, Congress has given broad
discretion to agencies. Second, money must be authorized and then
appropriated by Congress. The agency is thus beholden to the
legislative committee that authorizes funds and to the Appropriations
Committee of the House.

For many decades, Congress made increasing use
of the legislative veto to control bureaucratic or presidential
actions by vetoing a particular decision within a thirty- to
ninety-day period. However, in June 1983, the Supreme Court declared
the legislative veto unconstitutional (the Chadha case). This
decision’s exact effect on congressional oversight of the bureaucracy
is still uncertain. Finally, congressional investigations are the
most visible and dramatic form of oversight.


There are five major problems with
bureaucracies: red tape, conflict, duplication, imperialism, and

1. Red tape is the existence of
complex rules and procedures that must be followed to get
something done. Any large organization must have some way of
ensuring that one part of the organization does not operate out of
step with another.

2. Conflict exists when some agencies work
at cross-purposes with other agencies. The Agricultural Research
Service tells farmers how to grow crops more efficiently, while
the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service pays
farmers to grow fewer crops. Because Congress has 535 members and
little strong leadership, it is not surprising that it passes laws
that promote inconsistent or even contradictory goals.

3. Duplication occurs when two government
agencies seem to be doing the same thing, such as when the Customs
Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration both attempt to
intercept illegally smuggled drugs.

4. Imperialism refers to the tendency of
agencies to grow without regard to the benefits their programs
confer or the costs they entail. Because government agencies seek
vague goals and have vague mandates from Congress, it is not
surprising that they often take the broadest possible view of
their powers. If they do not, interest groups and judges may prod
them into doing so.

5. Waste occurs when an agency spends more
than is necessary to buy some product or service. An example would
be the much-publicized purchase of $300 hammers by the

It should be clear that bureaucratic problems
are hard to correct. Congress cannot make the hard policy choices and
set the clear priorities necessary to eliminate conflict and
duplication. Government exists partly to achieve the kind of vague
goals that resist clear cost-benefit analysis; eliminating red tape
might make coordination more difficult. Although Americans dislike
“the bureaucracy” in general, studies show that they like the
appointed officials with whom they deal.