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Federal Bureaucracy

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Federal Bureaucracy – to what Extent does the President have Control of it?

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 - the federal bureaucracy. The vast majority of the departments, agencies, and commissions that make up the federal bureaucracy today were created by Congress through legislative acts. Congress is unable to act in a bubble though, due to the nature of the system’s built-in checks and balances, Congress must first get the president’s “buy off” which is represented by his signature. Although Congress has the authority to create these agencies (with the president’s agreement of course), the Constitution designated the president as the person responsible for implementing and administering the decisions and actions of the bureaucracy. “As chief executive, the president is constitutionally charged with ensuring that the laws be faithfully executed” (Harrison, Harris, and Deardorff 391). 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 tugs-of-war that the bureaucracy is subjected to that affect their behavior and ultimately the amount of control the president is able to wield over them.
Originally, the federal bureaucracy had a modest role. In 1789, George Washington headed a federal bureaucracy of three departments: State (Foreign Affairs), War, and Treasury; and two offices: Attorney General’s Office and Postal Services Office. At this limited size, structure, and function; the bureaucracy was much more manageable so the president was able to have a better handle on it and hence exert more control over it. Since the federal bureaucracy’s origin though, Congress has created hundreds of departments and agencies to address the growing responsibilities (service, regulatory, protection, etc.) of government. Over time, as the economy and society of the United States grew and evolved; additional demands were placed on government. The government slowly expanded as needs arose and demands were articulated. The federal bureaucracy has grown the most during periods of crises and war such as the Great Depression, World War II, and more recently 9/11. Its piecemeal creation, overlapping responsibilities, rigid protocols, and sheer size are what make it so difficult to control and often frustrate those doing business with it.
This day in age, with some calling the bureaucracy the "fourth branch" of government, it consists of more than 2000 executive branch units (split into the following categories: departments, independent administrative agencies, independent regulatory commissions, agencies in the Executive Office of the President (EOP), and government corporations); spends trillions of dollars a year; and has more than 4 million employees (including political appointees, civil servants, senior executive service (SES) employees, and military personnel). The federal bureaucracy, as part of the executive branch, is administered by the president. But managing a bureaucracy this large and complex in addition to all of his other responsibilities would prove to be an impossible feat for one person, so there is an agency within the bureaucracy - the Executive Office of the President (EOP) - that assists the president. The president appoints the top-level EOP bureaucrats and can fire them at his will so they are generally loyal to him. Therefore, the president’s power over this particular category is quite extensive.
However, only about three percent of all federal employees are appointed by the president. Consequently, since the majority of bureaucrats are hired using the merit based system they are not as compelled to be loyal to the president’s will. Under the merit based system, employees cannot be fired simply because they have different political beliefs or don’t adhere to the president’s policy preferences. Thus, although the president has a lot of power, when it comes to the bureaucracy, it can be likened to having just a few cattle herders for thousands of cattle. Not all of the cattle are going to want to go in the same direction and will consequently have a tendency to split or wander off in their own direction despite the desire and drive of the herders.
To sum things up – when it comes to the bureaucracy, some of the controls that the president has the authority to use are: appoint and remove agency heads, reorganize the bureaucracy, make changes in budget proposals, reduce an agency's budget, ignore initiatives from the bureaucracy, and issue executive orders. Nonetheless, even with all of the powers and controls that the president possesses, taking into account the sheer magnitude and breadth of the bureaucracy, having complete control over it is not even feasible. In addition, even though the president is delegated the responsibility of managing the bureaucracy, when throwing the influences of Congress, iron triangles, issue networks, practices of outsourcing, etc., etc… into the mix, it muddies the waters even more. Consequently, a president only has limited control over the bureaucracy. Much like a parent and child relationship, it is impossible for the president to control everything the bureaucracy does and the bureaucracy is not going to be blindly obedient and fulfill the president’s every desire.

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