Study Guide

Federal Bureaucracy - FAQ

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What exactly is the federal bureaucracy?

The federal bureaucracy consists of the roughly 500 departments, agencies, administrations, authorities, and commissions that carry out responsibilities assigned to them through Congressional legislation.

What are some examples of the federal bureaucracy?

The oldest executive department is the Department of State, created by Congress in 1789. The largest executive department today is the Department of Defense, with about 650,000 civilian employees. One of the newest is the Department of Homeland Security, created by Congress in 2002 in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. One that impacts all of us on a daily basis is the Food and Drug Administration, created by Congress in 1906 in order to guarantee the purity of our food and medicine. An agency that has received a great deal of attention over the past several years is the Environmental Protection Agency. It was formed in 1971 by President Richard Nixon through a reorganization of several executive branch agencies to set and enforce anti-pollution standards.

What is the difference between a department, an administration, an agency, an authority, and a commission?

Departments are the largest organizations within the federal bureaucracy. There are fifteen executive departments (Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Justice, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs). Department heads are labeled secretaries (except for the Attorney General, who heads the Department of Justice), and these officials all serve in the president's cabinet.

Most of the agencies, commissions, and administrations fall under one of the executive departments. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. A minority of the agencies are independent; that is, they do not fall under any of the executive departments. The Environmental Protection Agency is an example of an independent agency.

There is not perfect consistency in the use of the various labels for government agencies, but commissions generally engage in some form of business regulation. Also, there is a loose distinction drawn between staff agencies and line agencies. Staff agencies provide advice and assistance to the president and other executive branch officials, while line agencies have a set of specific responsibilities that they carry out. For example, the Office of Management and Budget is a staff agency; it provides the president with assistance in constructing his annual budget proposal. The Environmental Protection Agency is a line agency. It does more than provide advice; it is charged with setting and enforcing air and water quality standards.

Why are some executive agencies "independent"?

Some "independent agencies" just don't fit under one of the large executive departments. But others were made independent because Congress wanted to protect them from political manipulation. In particular, Congress wanted to make sure that future presidents could not administer an agency in ways contrary to Congress's intentions in creating the agency.

Congress achieves this in several ways. For example, the founding legislation may require that agency officials represent both parties, or it may stagger the terms of these officials so that no president can appoint more than a few. In addition, Congress may specify the grounds for dismissal of an agency official.

Many of these independent agencies also have their own legislative ad judicial powers. That is, Congress grants to these agencies the authority to make their own rules and regulations, thus shielding them from executive direction. And Congress similarly confers upon them the authority to rule on disputes that arise under these rules and regulations.

What is a government corporation?

This is another type of government organization within the federal bureaucracy. It is a government-owned enterprise that provides some service for a fee or engages in a commercial activity. One example is the United States Postal Service. Amtrak, or the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, is also a government corporation founded in 1971 to revive passenger rail travel.

Where did all these departments and agencies come from?

The vast majority of the departments, agencies, and commissions that make up the federal bureaucracy were created by Congress through legislative acts. The acts were then signed into law by the president who, as the chief executive, was then delegated responsibility for implementing the legislation. A few of the agencies and commission were created directly by executive action by reorganizing existing agencies created earlier by Congress.

Who runs the federal bureaucracy?

The federal bureaucracy is part of the executive branch, which means that the president exercises ultimate control over it. But managing a bureaucracy this large is too difficult for one person, so there is an agency—the Executive Office of the President—that assists the president in running the federal bureaucracy. The most critical members of the Executive Office work in the West Wing of the White House.

More directly, the individual departments and agencies of the federal bureaucracy are managed by officials appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

Does Congress have any ongoing say in the operation of the federal bureaucracy?

Yes. Even though the president is delegated the responsibility of managing the bureaucracy, Congress can influence its operations in several way. Congress can pass new legislation adding details to an agency's mandate. Congress also can influence an agency through the funding process. It can also mobilize political pressure on an agency, and the president's management of it, by holding hearings that direct public attention toward the agency. In addition, through legislative devices such as legislative vetoes and "report and wait provisions," Congress can filter the president's management decisions.

How are positions in the federal bureaucracy filled?

About two-thirds of all federal jobs are distributed through a competitive process overseen by the Office of Personnel Management (the federal government hiring office). In many cases, this competitive process includes a written examination. Almost all of the remaining third are distributed by the individual agencies using their own merit-based criteria. Only about three percent of all federal employees are appointed by the president or hired outside of the formal merit-based processes.

Why must federal employees take an exam?

For most of the nineteenth century, all government positions were distributed by the president as a form of patronage; that is, jobs were offered as rewards to political supporters in order to build party unity. But as the government grew, presidents found the task of filling government positions increasingly burdensome, and in 1881, a deranged office-seeker killed President James Garfield when the president denied him a position. Two years later, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, creating the Civil Service Commission. It was charged with developing ways of reducing patronage within the federal bureaucracy and replacing it with a merit-based hiring system. Examinations were a part of the system it developed.

How many people are employed by the federal government?

There are roughly 2.7 million civilians directly employed by the federal government. This includes more than 600,000 United States Postal workers. In addition, there are currently an additional 1.4 million serving in the armed forces.

Why has the federal bureaucracy grown?

The federal bureaucracy has grown as the public, and the Congress and presidents acting on its behalf, have concluded that more aspects of our domestic and international affairs required government attention. A number of new agencies were created during the Progressive Era, when there was a consensus that America's emerging industrial economy required regulation. The federal bureaucracy also expanded during the 1930s, when the public demanded government action in response to the Great Depression. And it grew further during World War II as the federal government mobilized all of society in support of the war effort. During the 1960s, Congress created still more agencies as part of President Johnson's Great Society program, a multifaceted campaign aimed at reducing poverty and increasing educational and economic opportunities in America.

Have there been periods when the federal bureaucracy shrank?

Sort of. Periods of bureaucratic expansion and increased regulation have been followed by periods of deregulation. During the 1920s, Republican Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover took measures to reduce government regulation. And during the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan established a task force designed to eliminate what he perceived as wasteful regulation. The number of persons employed by the federal government did not actually decline, but it grew very little during these decades.

In addition, in terms of persons directly employed by the federal government, the bureaucracy has shrunk as a percentage of America's total workforce since the 1970s. But this can be misleading. More federal dollars have been distributed to state and local governments and private agencies. As a result, the federal government now indirectly employs an additional twelve million persons.

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