Federal Bureaucracy Introduction


  • 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.

What is Federal Bureaucracy About and 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."

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.

Federal Bureaucracy Trivia

In order to scientifically rebut industry claims that the chemicals injected into foods were safe, the Department of Agriculture created a "poison squad" in 1902. Volunteers from the department were fed foods laced with widely used chemicals: borax, salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, sodium benzoate, and formaldehyde. The experiments were stopped in 1907 when squad members became too ill to tolerate further study. By then, the public and Congress had been alerted to the dangers of commonly used food additives.

Keeping track of all the money that flows through the federal bureaucracy is apparently an impossible task. A 2003 audit of all government spending could not find $24.5 billion. If we spread the blame around equally, that means that each federal employee lost track of about $9000.

An investigation at the Department of Agriculture revealed that about fifteen percent of the department's employees abused the credit cards issued for official use—unless, of course, their official duties required that they spend money on tattoos, lingerie, bartender school tuition, car payments, and Ozzy Osbourne concerts.

Federal Bureaucracy Resources


Alfred Kahn, Lessons from Deregulation: Telecommunications and Airlines after the Crunch (2004)
Alfred Kahn, Cornell economics professor and former head of the Civil Aeronautics Board, was an early champion of airline deregulation. Despite the industry's recent struggles, he still insists that it was the right course of action in this new book. It's not the easiest read, but if you support deregulation, you will enjoy this book.

Robert Collin, The Environmental Protection Agency: Cleaning Up America's Act (2005)
Aimed at high school students, this textbook-like study of the Environmental Protection Agency is part of Greenwood Press' Understanding Our Government Series. A nuts-and-bolts review of the agency, its history, and its structure is followed by an examination of major environmental episodes such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Three Mile Island.

James Harvey Young, Pure Food: Securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906 (1989)
The federal government's extensive role in protecting American consumers from unsafe goods began with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The campaign for the law and the resistance to it are well documented in this book.


Who Needs Scientists
President George Bush raised a controversy by ignoring the advice of the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee on air quality standards.

"You are now free to move about the country"
President Jimmy Carter signs the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 into law.

Sign of the Times
The foreclosure crisis of 2008

Citigroup Bailout
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and President George Bush announce the Citigroup bailout plan.

Bailout Blvd.
Main Street reacts to the Wall Street bailout.

Bureaucrats at Work
This cartoonist's version of bureaucratic leadership

Bureaucratic Ironies
Designed to be efficient, bureaucracies are often criticized as anything but.

Poison Squad
Civic-minded bureaucrats from the Department of Agriculture eat chemical laced food to test the safety of commonly used preservatives.

Movies & TV

Catch-22 (1970)
Ok, this movie is more about the army than the federal bureaucracy, but this Mike Nichols classic hilariously satirizes the bureaucratic quality of this government institution—its absence of leadership, redundancy and waste, and maze of incomprehensible regulations.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
Spike Lee serves up a powerful indictment of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) in this four-hour documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.


The White House
The official White House website includes tons of information on the executive departments, the cabinet, and cabinet-level officials.

Government Departments and Agencies
This alphabetized list of government agencies and departments will provide a sense of the size and breadth of the federal bureaucracy. The list is linked to the websites of the agencies and departments.

Video & Audio

Primary Sources
Statistics gathered by more than 100 government agencies are available at this searchable database.

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