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Accountability in Government

  • Government rules and union contracts do make it quite difficult to fire federal employees
  • Federal agencies are accountable to both the president and to Congress

Is it really impossible to fire a lousy federal worker?

This is a popular stereotype that is, in fact, largely true. Federal employees are virtually untouchable once they pass through a probationary period. A dissatisfied supervisor must compile reams of documentation before firing an employee, while the employee is guaranteed at least two appeals and the services of a government attorney. As a result, bad employees are more often reassigned than fired. In 1976, only six Internal Revenue Service employees were fired for poor performance out of a total workforce of 71,000.7 Six! More recently, the government fired only 3014 employees for poor performance or misconduct out of roughly 3 million civilian employees—that's about 0.1% of all federal workers.8

Many people also believe that bureaucrats are tyrants, that they run their little kingdoms without any supervision and are accountable to no one.

But that one is more false than true.

The government agencies that employ bureaucrats are created by Congress; that is, Congress passes a bill establishing these agencies to address some public need. But Congress can only legislate; it cannot execute. That is the job of the president, or chief executive. The president has the authority to implement the new bill and, in the process, flesh out the details of the legislative act that brought the agency into existence. As a result, all agencies operate to some extent under the authority of the president. To impose their imprint on these agencies, presidents can appoint agency heads and issue executive orders that add details to the legislative mandate and guide the agency in carrying out its responsibilities.

But Congress still has ways of influencing the actual operation of the agency. For starters, the more precisely it defines the purposes and responsibilities of the agency it creates, the more say Congress has over its actual operation. In addition, Congress can always pass new legislation to fine tune the agency's practices. Congress also passes the appropriations bills that fund the agency, and they can attach riders to these bills specifying how the funding must be utilized. Congress can also mobilize political pressure on the president and the agency to force the agency to operate in a certain way. For example, it can hold hearings that direct public attention to some specific agency behavior or neglected need.

In other words, federal agencies actually answer to both the president and Congress. In addition, agencies usually find themselves under pressure from multiple interest groups affected by the agency or interested in its objectives. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency faces scrutiny from both environmental organizations that want rigorous enforcement of anti-pollution standards and private industries just as anxious to negotiate concessions in the enforcement of those standards.

All that being said, many agencies manage to operate with considerable autonomy—at least for a time. This often depends on the how the agency is perceived by the general public. The more respected the agency, the freer it remains from close executive or Congressional oversight. For example, during the 1970s, NASA, fresh off its successful moon landing, received large appropriations with few strings attached. Other agencies that gain the confidence of Congress, the president, and/or the public exercise a great deal of discretionary authority. They issue regulations and distribute money to state and local governments as well as to individuals and private organizations. But this sort of autonomy is never absolute. A new Congress, a new president, or changing public perceptions of an agency can lead to a loss of autonomy. After the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986, for example, NASA's reputation—and therefore independence—declined sharply.

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