Part I: the ap united states government course examination

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Many Americans have a negative view of the federal bureaucracy. The very mention of the world bureaucracy often conjures up a memory of an important document lost, or a scolding for some alleged misconduct of personal business. Bureaucratic power is felt in almost all areas of American life, and yet bureaucracies are barely mentioned in the Constitution. Bureaucratic agencies are created and funded by Congress, but most of them report to the president, who supervises them as he takes "care that the laws shall be faithfully executed" (Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution). This dual responsibility to Congress and to the president is an indication of the complex nature of the organization and functioning of federal government bureaucracies.


A bureaucracy is a large, complex organization of appointed, not elected, officials. Bureaucracies exist in many countries in many areas of life, including corporations, universities, and local and state governments. 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 doing the king’s business. So bureaucracy literally means something like government with small desks.


Max Weber was one of the first people in modern times to think seriously about the importance of bureaucracy. He wrote in 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. He created the classic conception of bureaucracy as a well-organized, complex machine that is a "rational" way for a modern society to organize its business. He did not see them as necessary evils, but as the best organizational response to a changing society.

According to Weber, a bureaucracy has several basic characteristics:

        hierarchical authority structure - A chain of command that is hierarchical; the top bureaucrat has ultimate control, and authority flows from the top down.

        task specialization - A clear division of labor in which every individual has a specialized job

        extensive rules - Clearly written, well-established formal rules that all people in the organization follow

        clear goals - A clearly defined set of goals that all people in the organization strive toward

        the merit principle - Merit-based hiring and promotion; no granting of jobs to friends or family unless they are the best qualified

        impersonality - Job performance that is judged by productivity, or how much work the individual gets done

Weber emphasized the importance of the bureaucracy in getting things done and believed that a well-organized, rational bureaucracy is key to the successful operation of modern societies.


The American federal bureaucracy shares common characteristics with other bureaucracies, but it has its own characteristics that distinguish it from others.

  1. Divided supervision - 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 him. So the bureaucracy has two masters: Congress and the president. Political authority over the bureaucracy is shared, then, according to the principles of separation of powers and federalism. On the national level, both Congress and officials in the executive branch have authority over the bureaucracy. This divided authority encourages bureaucrats to play one branch of government against the other. Also, to complicate things even more, many agencies have counterparts at the state and local level. Many federal agencies work with other organizations at state and local levels of government.

  1. Close public scrutiny - Government agencies in this country operate under closer public scrutiny than they do in most other countries. The emphasis in American political culture on individual rights and their defense against abuse by government makes court challenges to agency actions more likely. About half of the cases that come to federal court involve the United States government as either defendant or plaintiff.

  1. Regulation rather than public ownership - United States government agencies regulate privately owned enterprises, rather than operate publicly owned ones. In most Western European nations the government owns and operates large parts of the economy; the U.S. government prefers regulation to ownership.


The Constitution made little mention of a bureaucracy other than to make the president responsible for appointing (with the advice and consent of the Senate) public officials, including ambassadors, judges, and "all other officers of the United States whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law" (Article II, Section 3). No provisions mentioned departments or bureaus, but Congress created the first bureaucracy during George Washington’s presidency.


The bureaucracy began in 1789 when Congress created a Department of State to assist the new Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. From 1789 to about 1829, the bureaucracy was drawn from an upper-class, white male elite. In 1829, the new President Andrew Jackson employed a spoils system to reward party loyalists with key federal posts. Jackson believed that such rewards would not only provide greater participation by the middle and lower classes, but would insure effectiveness and responsiveness from those who owed their jobs to the president. The spoils system ensured that with each new president came a full turnover in the federal service.


Late in the nineteenth century the spoils system was severely criticized because it allowed people with little knowledge and background to be appointed to important government positions. Some accused presidents of "selling" the positions or using them as bribes to muster support for their election campaigns. After President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881 by a disappointed office seeker, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which set up a limited merit system for appointing federal offices. Federal service was placed under the Civil Service Commission, which supervised a testing program to evaluate candidates. Federal employees were to be selected and retained according to merit, not party loyalty, but in the beginning the merit system only covered about 10 percent of all federal employees.


By the 1950s the merit system had grown to cover about 90 percent of all federal employees, and in 1978, the functions of the Civil Service Commission were split between two new agencies:

  • The Office of Personnel Management administers civil service laws, rules, and regulations. The OPM administers written examinations for the competitive service, which includes about two-thirds of all appointed officials. The OPM is in charge of hiring for most agencies. When a position opens, the OPM sends three eligible names to the agency, and the agency must hire one of them, except under unusual circumstances. Once hired, a person is assigned a GS (General Schedule) Rating, ranging from GS 1 to GS 18, which determines salaries. At the top of the civil service system is the Senior Executive Service, executives with high salaries who may be moved from one agency to another.

  • The Merit Systems Protection Board protects the integrity of the federal merit system and the rights of federal employees. The board hears charges of wrongdoing and employee appeals against agency actions and orders disciplinary actions against agency executives or employees.

The federal bureaucracy grew tremendously as a result of Roosevelt's New Deal programs and World War II, but the number of federal bureaucrats has leveled off in the years since then. Whereas the number of employees of state and local governments has grown tremendously in the past fifty years, the number of federal employees has remained a relatively constant three percent of all civilian jobs. One reason for the growth on the state and local levels is that many recently created federal programs are administered at the lower levels of government, not by federal employees.
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