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Federal Bureaucracy Introduction

In a Nutshell

  • Federal bureaucracy is responsible for enacting policies of president and Congress
  • Federal bureaucracy now includes more than 500 agencies, departments, and other organizations; employs nearly 3 million people
  • Some call the bureaucracy the "fourth branch" of government

When the framers of the Constitution developed our government, they gave Congress the authority to create the departments necessary to carry out the day-to-day responsibilities of governing. Congress exercised this power first in 1789 when it created the Department of State to assist the president in conducting foreign policy. But since then, Congress has created hundreds of departments and agencies to address the growing responsibilities of government. This vast network of government agencies constitutes the federal bureaucracy.

The federal bureaucracy falls under the jurisdiction of the executive branch; even though Congress has the authority to create these agencies, the Constitution designated the president as the person responsible for implementing and administering its decisions.

The resulting tension between Congress, as the creators of the bureaucracy, and the president, as the executive in charge of the bureaucracy, is just one of the peculiar features (some would say flaws) of our federal government. Its piecemeal creation, overlapping responsibilities, rigid protocols, and sheer size often frustrate those doing business with it. But Americans are nevertheless hugely dependent on the services and protections the bureaucracy provides.

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Why Should I Care?

Have you heard this one?

Two bureaucrats were walking back to their office after lunch when one turned suddenly and stepped on a snail. "Why did you kill it?" asked one. "He's been following us for twenty minutes," replied the other.

Or how about this one?

A Bureaucrat and his associate were standing at the base of a flagpole, looking up. A blonde lady walked by and asked what they were doing.

"We're supposed to find the height of the flagpole," said the first, "but we don't have a ladder."

The woman took a wrench from her purse, loosened a few bolts, and laid the pole down. Then she took a tape measure from her pocket, measured the pole, and announced, "Eighteen feet, six inches," and walked away.

The associate shook his head and laughed. "Ain't that just like a dumb blonde? We ask for the height, and she gives us the length."

Here's one more.

An engineer, an accountant, a chemist, and a bureaucrat were bragging about how smart their dogs are.

The engineer called to his dog, "T-square, do your stuff." The dog took out paper and pen and drew a circle, a square, and a triangle. Everyone agreed he was smart.

The accountant called, "Slide Rule, do your stuff." The pooch went to the kitchen, got a dozen cookies, and made four stacks of three. Everyone was impressed.

The chemist called, "Beaker, do your stuff." The dog went to the fridge for a quart of milk, got a ten-ounce glass, and poured exactly eight ounces without spilling a drop. Everyone agreed that was great.

The bureaucrat called, "Coffee Break, do your stuff." Coffee Break ate the cookies, drank the milk, chewed the paper, claimed he injured his mouth doing so, filed a grievance for unsafe working conditions, put in for workers' compensation and took extended sick leave.

Americans love to hate their bureaucrats. We mock them as lazy and incompetent, masters of slacking off, and parasites on society. Yet they staff the agencies that provide services upon which we all depend. Would any of us want to see the Food and Drug Administration stop inspecting our food and drugs? Would we really want the Environmental Protection Agency to close up shop and let polluting industries control the quality of our air and water? And do we really think that private charities could muster all the resources needed to help out the sick and the unemployed if we abolished the Departments of Health and Human Services and Labor?

So why do we dump so much abuse on the federal bureaucracy and the people that staff it? Are there any truths within the stereotypes? And if there are problems within the bureaucracy, why do they exist?

Read on and decide for yourself.

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