AP U.S. Government and Politics

Bureaucratic Loose Ends

When you think about bureaucracies, one of the first things that comes to mind is red tape. Modern bureaucracies, however, play an important linkage role in government.

The bureaucracy is primarily responsible for implementing government policies. Some bureaucracies also make policy as a result of regulations they issue. A bureaucrat who decides to follow a course of action not specified by law but could be inferred from it is exercising discretionary authority.

The size of the federal bureaucracy expanded greatly in the 20th century as a result of the depression and World War II. All wars lead to an increase in the size of the bureaucracy.

An advantage that bureaucrats in the federal government have over the President in the policymaking process is that bureaucrats usually have a continuity of service that the President lacks. Presidents come and go - bureaucrats remain.

The factors that best explain the behavior or individual bureaucrats include: how they are recruited, how they are rewarded, their personal atributes, and the influence of outside forces (ex. lobbyists). The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) regulates the hiring of bureaucrats, but, by using the buddy system a bureaucratic agency can circumvent the OPM by tailoring a job description to match a specific applicant, and, once hired, most bureaucrats cannot be fired.

A fundamental source of power for the bureaucracy lies in the ability of various departments and agencies to pursuade Congress to fund projects they support. The most powerful group in Congress in terms of control over an agencies budget is the House Appropriations Committee and the best indicator of a cabinet department's yearly budget is the size of the previous year's budget. If a department does not send all the money allocated its funds will be cut in the next year's budget.

The largest bureaucratic unit in the executive branch of government is the cabinet department. Cabinet departments and independent regulatory agencies are created by Congress but it is the president's responsibility to appoint the heads (or commissioners) of these agencies to a fixed term of office. Cabinet departments differ from independent regulatory agencies in that the president can dismiss the heads of cabinet departments but not the commissioners of independent regulatory agencies. In addition, cabinet members often do not have a sgnificant influence on presidential decision making because th president's personal political goals often conflict with the goals of individual cabinet departments.

Examples of independent regulatory agencies are the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), Federal Reserve Board (FRB), Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Enviromental Protection Agency (EPA), and Small Business Administration (SBA). Independent regulatory agencies are created to regulate a particular sector of the economy and make rules designed for the public interest. Regulatory agencies also tend to be freer from presidential control than cabinet departments.


The federal government is organized around the following executive-level departments:

The cabinet: There are 14 cabinet departments headed by a secretary (except for the Attorney General). The secretaries are appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate. Each department also has undersecretaries, deputies, and assistants. They manage specific policy areas, and each has its own budget and staff.

The regulatory agencies:

Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC)

Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

Consumer Product and Safety Commission (CPSC)

Federal Election Commission (FEC)

Government corporations such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (created during the New Deal) and U.S. Postal Service, are agencies that provide services that the private sector cannot profitably provide.

Independent Executive Agencies such as the General Services Administration (GSA), which handles government purchasing; the National Science Foundation, which supports scientific reaearch and development; and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which coordinates the countries efforts in outer space.



Pendleton Act (1883)




merit system


The Hatch Act (1939)






the Pentagon


Freedom of Information Act




unfunded mandates