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Actually Running The United States Government?

Red tape. Paper pushers. Bean counters. Vast, cookie-cutter buildings with fluorescent lighting and thousands of file cabinets. These are the images that come to mind when many Americans think of government bureaucracy. A bureaucrat is someone who works in administrative capacity for the government. How important are bureaucrats and their government agencies in actually running the United States government? According to some, they are the real government — the ones behind the scenes who go to work when the politicians are enjoying the spotlight.

Max Weber, a German sociologist was one of the first people in modern times to think seriously about the importance of bureaucracy. The term actually comes from the French word "bureau," a reference to the small desks that the king's representatives set up in towns as they traveled across the country on king's business. So bureaucracy literally means "government with a small desk."

Weber wrote about Germany during the early 20th century, when developing capitalism was spawning more and more large businesses. The changing economic scene had important implications for government. Weber saw bureaucracy as a rational way for complex businesses and governments to organize. He did not see them as necessary evils, but as the best organizational response to a changing society. Weber emphasized the importance of the bureaucracy in getting things done and believed that a well-organized, rational bureaucracy is the secret behind the successful operation of modern societies.

Observers of the modern American government often point to an iron triangle that best demonstrates who really does the work of government. The iron triangle, sometimes called a subgovernment, consists of interest groups, members of congressional subcommittees, and agency bureaucrats. Many political analysts believe policy is set by the participants in the "Iron Triangle" rather than elected officials.

According to the theory, agencies and departments usually keep close contacts with interest group lobbyists who want to influence their actions. Interest groups may provide valuable statistics to government agencies, and they are motivated to have their point of view heard. Both lobbyists and bureaucrats value contact with congressional subcommittees that shape the laws that govern their interests. Working together, these three groups set most government policies. An example of such an iron triangle would be the American Association for Retired People (AARP), the House Subcommittee on Aging, and the Social Security Administration all working together to set government policy on Social Security.

So, it is not only the famous people — the President, the Chief of Staff, the Speaker of the House, or the Senate Majority Leader — who make the real decisions in government. Often, the real players in government are the agency bureaucrats — the people behind the scenes.

The original bureaucracy of the federal government consisted only of employees from three small departments — State, Treasury, and War. The executive branch employs today almost three million people. Not only have the numbers of bureaucrats grown, but also the methods and standards for hiring and promoting people have changed dramatically.

George Washington promised to hire only people "as shall be the best qualified." Still, most of his employees belonged to the budding Federalist Party — the party toward which Washington leaned. When Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson became President, he dismissed many of the Federalists and filled their jobs with members from his party. With this action, he began a long tradition of filling government positions through patronage, a system of rewarding friends and political allies in exchange for their support.

Andrew Jackson is regarded as the President who entrenched the patronage, or "spoils" system. Following the old saying, "to the victor go the spoils," he brought a whole new group of "Jacksonian Democrats" into office. Jackson argued that the spoils system brought greater rotation in office. He thought it was healthy to clear out the government workers who had worked for predecessors, lest they become corrupt. He formed his own group of advisors from his friends and political allies, known as the "Kitchen Cabinet," to support his goals for the nation.

During the 1800s, while more and more federal employees were landing their jobs through patronage, the bureaucracy was growing rapidly as new demands were placed on government. As the country expanded westward new agencies were needed to manage the land and its settlement. And as people moved into the new areas, a greatly expanded Post Office was necessary. The Civil War sparked the creation of thousands of government jobs and new departments to handle the demands of warfare. After the war, the Industrial Revolution encouraged economic growth and more government agencies to regulate the expanding economy.

The spoils tradition was diluted in 1881 when Charles Guiteau, a disappointed office seeker, killed President James Garfield because he was not granted a government job. After Garfield's assassination, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which created a merit-based federal civil service. It was meant to replace patronage with the principle of federal employment on the basis of open, competitive exams. The Pendleton Act created a three-member Civil Service Commission to administer this new merit system. At first only about 10 percent of federal employees were members of the civil service. Today, about 85 to 90 percent take this exam.

In reaction to the excesses of Gilded Age millionaires, many Americans demanded that the government regulate business and industry. As a result, a group of independent regulatory commissions emerged as the 20th century dawned. The first of these agencies was the Interstate Commerce Commission, set up in 1887 to monitor abuses in the railroad industry. Reform movements of the early 20th century demanded that government regulate child labor, food processing and packaging, and working and living conditions for the laboring classes.

The largest growth of the bureaucracy in American history came between 1933 and 1945. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal meant bigger government, since agencies were needed to administer his many programs. With the American entry into World War II in 1941, the needs of the war elevated the number of federal agencies and employees even more. During those 12 Roosevelt years, the total number of federal employees increased from a little over half a million in 1933 to an all time high of more than 3.5 million in 1945. After World War II ended in 1945, the total number of federal employees decreased significantly, but still has remained at levels between about 2.5 and 3 million. Contrary to popular opinion, the federal bureaucracy did not grow in numbers significantly during the last half of the 20th century. Federal bureaucrats did, however, greatly increase their influence.

Even the experts can't agree on the total number of federal government agencies, commissions, and departments. Most estimates suggest there are probably more than 2,000 of these. They each have an area of specialization — some much broader than others — but their duties often overlap, making administration more difficult. To complicate things even more, many agencies have counterparts at the state and local level. Its size, complexity, and overlapping responsibilities leave the federal bureaucracy open to constant attempts to reorganize and streamline.

Congress has the power to create, organize, and disband all federal agencies. Most of them are under the control of the President, although few of them actually have direct contact with the White House. So, the bureaucracy has two masters — Congress and the President. The bureaucracy generally falls into four broad types: Cabinet departments, government corporations, independent agencies, and regulatory commissions

The 15 Cabinet departments are each headed by a Secretary who sits on the President's Cabinet. The exception is the Justice Department, which is headed by the Attorney General, who is also a member of the President's Cabinet. The Secretaries are responsible for directing the department's policy and for overseeing its operation. Cabinet secretaries are usually torn between their responsibilities as presidential advisers and heads of their departments.

Each has a special area of policy, although their responsibilities are still very broad. The organization of each is quite complex, but they have some things in common. All Secretaries have a Deputy or Undersecretary, as well as a host of Assistant Secretaries, who all direct major programs within the department. Most departments are divided into bureaus, divisions, and sections. For example, the FBI lies within the domain of the Justice Department, and the Secret Service is currently within the Treasury Departmeny agency, but soon to be moved under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security.

Government corporations do not belong to any department — they stand on their own. Probably the best-known government corporations are the United States Postal Service and Amtrak. They are different from other agencies in that they are businesses created by Congress, and they charge fees for their services. Like any other business, government corporations have private competition — such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service — and sometimes state competition — such as the New Jersey Transit Authority.

Independent agencies closely resemble Cabinet departments, but they are smaller and less complex. Generally, they have narrower areas of responsibility than do Cabinet departments. Most of these agencies are not free from presidential control and are independent only in the sense that they are not part of a department. Congress creates them as separate agencies for many reasons, practical as well as symbolic. For example, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established, many members of Congress assumed that it would be a part of the Department of Defense. However, it is an independent agency because the space program has many other purposes than the defense of the nation.

These agencies regulate important parts of the economy, making rules for large industries and businesses that affect the interests of the public. Because regulatory commissions are "watchdogs" that by their very nature need to operate independently, they are not part of a department, and the President does not directly control most of them. Each commission has from 5 to 11 members appointed by the President, but the President cannot remove them for the length of their terms in office.

Examples of these commissions are the Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates the stock market, brokers, and investment practices. Another well-known commission is the Federal Reserve Board that governs the nation's monetary policy. The Environmental Protection Agency serves as a guardian over the nation's environment, making and enforcing standards for the industrial and commercial sectors.

With over 2,000 different agencies, the federal bureaucracy is almost certain to run into problems with organization, overlapping responsibilities, and efficiency. Almost every recent President has come into office determined to refashion and trim the bureaucracy. However, none has been able to make more than minor adjustments. Well-established agencies have lives of their own, and are difficult to change. Besides, the country has large, complex, needs requiring special attention. A large bureaucracy is a part of the government's attempt to meet those needs.

The image of the faceless federal employee is completely false. The 4 million Americans who work for the federal government have many faces and do many jobs. For starters, over 1.4 million are in military service. Overall, they represent much more of a cross section of the American population than do members of Congress or federal judges. About 43% are women, and 28% represent minority groups.

Most people think that bureaucrats only follow orders. They carry out the decisions that the President or members of Congress make. Of course, anyone who works in the executive branch is there to implement decisions, but the reality of their work is more complicated. The power of the bureaucracy depends on how much discretionary authority it is granted. Congress passes laws, but it cannot follow through on all the little decisions that have to be made as the law is translated into action. Bureaucrats, then, may make policies and choose actions that are not spelled out in advance by laws.

About 90% of all federal bureaucrats are hired under regulations of the civil service system. Most of them take a written examination administered by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and they meet selection criteria, such as training, education levels, or prior experience. Some of them take special tests and meet special criteria, such as postal employees, FBI agents, CIA intelligence officers, foreign-service officers, and doctors in the Public Health Service.

The variety of people who work for the federal bureaucracy is greater than most people realize. They may do scientific research, clerk in welfare offices, decide burn policies for national forests, or do undercover intelligence work. They are all a part of the process whereby the government fulfills the many expectations that Americans have for it today.

Since 1980, virtually every presidential election included a debate over the size of the federal government. Americans who believed the bureaucracy had become too large, too expensive, and too powerful were becoming more numerous, and as a result many politicians began to demand reform. Bureaucracies move slowly. One hand doesn't always know what the other is doing. Federal employees have so much job security that there is little fear of being fired for incompetence. There are so many agencies organized in such confusing ways. How can the ordinary citizen feel connected to government when everything is so impersonal? Public criticism of bureaucratic inefficiency is commonplace. In response, many people, including most Presidents, have tried to reform and reorganize the bureaucracy.

The merit system tries to ensure that the best-qualified people get government jobs and that party politics is limited. In 1939, Congress passed the Hatch Act, which required employees, once they were hired, to have as little to do with political parties as possible. The Hatch Act forbids employees from engaging in many party activities. For example, they could not run for public office or raise funds for a party or candidate, nor could they become officers in a political organization or a delegate to a party convention.

In the early 1970s some bureaucrats complained that their First Amendment rights were being violated. The issue made its way to the Supreme Court, where the justices ruled that the Hatch Act did not put unreasonable restrictions on employees' rights. However, in 1993 Congress softened the Hatch Act by making many forms of participation in politics permissible. Federal bureaucrats still cannot run as candidates in elections, but they may be active in party politics. One criticism of our merit-based bureaucracy is that once a person is employed there are no requirements that he or she be held accountable for their work. Since they no longer lose their jobs when a new President takes office, some criticize that they become complacent and inflexible.

One common complaint about bureaucracy is that "red tape" — the maze of government rules, regulations, and paperwork — makes government so overwhelming to citizens that many people try to avoid any contact. Filling out forms, standing in line, and being put on hold on the telephone all have resulted in many people being discouraged from ever applying for benefits they rightfully deserve.

In response, Presidents of the 20th century offered no fewer than eleven major reorganizations of the federal bureaucracy. The latest was the National Performance Review, conducted by Vice President Al Gore in 1993. The NPR report contained many horror stories about useless red tape for both citizens and government officials themselves. The NPR called for less centralized management, more employee initiative, fewer rules, and more emphasis on customer satisfaction. As of the year 2000, few of the recommendations have been followed.

One reason that it is so hard to reform the bureaucracy is that it has two masters — the President and Congress. Especially during periods of divided government, one branch can be suspicious that the other is trying to gain control. As a result, one branch or the other resists reform. Finding the practical solutions that have bipartisan support is a difficult process, largely because the system of checks and balances is not particularly efficient. Nevertheless, bureaucratic reform is often attempted by the President and Congress. Meanwhile, the red tape remains rather sticky.

The Bureaucracy: The Real Government; The Development of the Bureaucracy; The Organization of the Bureaucracy; Who Are the Bureaucrats? Reforming the Bureaucracy. American Government Online Textbook.


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