Part I: the ap united states government course examination

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Most people think that bureaucrats only follow orders. 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 they have. Congress passes laws, but they cannot follow through on all the little decisions that have to be made as laws are translated into action. Bureaucrats, then, may make policies and choose actions that are not spelled out in advance by laws.

Their main function is to do the nuts and bolts of "executing" policies that are made by Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court.


Most policies do not implement themselves. After the President signs a bill into law, the bureaucracy must implement it. Bureaucrats develop procedures and rules for implementing policy goals, and they manage the routines of government, such as delivering mail and collecting taxes.

Usually Congress announces the goals of a policy, sets up a broad administrative apparatus, and leaves the task of working out details to the bureaucracy. The implementers take a policy handed down to them from Congress, the president, or the Court, and actually put it into effect, with real consequences for real people.

Implementation involves more power in the policymaking process than is readily apparent. During this stage, many key decisions are made. Congress often passes ambiguous legislation, or the supporters of a bill that is passed into law get involved with other bills and lose contact with laws passed on to the executive branch. By the very nature of the compromise that passed the bill into law in Congress, it often sets general goals and passes the responsibility for interpretation on to the bureaucrats. As a result, the bureaucracy is given latitude in translating general guidelines into specific directives.


The function of regulation of private sector activities has developed over the course of the twentieth century. The earlier function of service (the Post Office, benefits to veterans, agriculture) dominated the bureaucracy until the early twentieth century Progressive Movement, when the government began to regulate businesses.

As early as 1877 the Supreme Court upheld the right of government to regulate business in Munn v. Ohio, a case that upheld the rights of the state of Illinois to regulate the charges and services of a Chicago warehouse. The New Deal legislation of the 1930s created more regulatory agencies, and World War II allowed government a great deal more regulation than ever before.

Today all sorts of activities are subject to federal regulation from automobile production to buying and selling stock to the production and distribution of meat and poultry. Hundreds of agencies supervise and enforce a vast array of regulations.

As regulators, agencies first receive a grant of power from Congress to sketch out the means of executing broad policy decisions. Next, the agency develops a set of guidelines to govern an industry, usually in consultation with people who work in those industries. Next, the agency must apply and enforce its rules and guidelines, often through its own administrative procedures, but sometimes in court. Sometimes it reacts to complaints, and other times it sends inspectors out to the field. Regulation may be executed by requiring applicants to acquire a permit or license to operate under their guidelines and Congressional policies.


The biggest difference between a government agency and a private organization is the number of constraints placed on agencies from other parts of government and by law. A government bureau cannot hire, fire, build, or sell without going through procedures set by Congress, often through law. Presidents also exert considerable power over the bureaucracies.  


Congress often acts as the problem-solving branch of government, setting the agenda and then letting the agencies decide how to implement them. On the other hand, Congress serves as a check on the activities of the bureaucracy. Congress oversees the bureaucracy in a number of ways.

1)      Duplication - Congress rarely gives any one job to a single agency. For example, drug trafficking is the task of the Customs Services, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Border Patrol, and the Defense Department. Although this spreading out of the responsibility often leads to contradictions among agencies and sometimes inhibits the responsiveness of government, it also keeps any one agency from becoming all powerful.

2)      Authorization - No agency may spend money unless it has first been authorized by Congress. Authorization legislation originates in a legislative committee, and states the maximum amount of money that an agency may spend on a given program. Furthermore, even if funds have been authorized, Congress must also appropriate the money. An appropriation is money formally set aside for a specific use, and it usually is less than the amount authorized. The Appropriations Committees in both houses of Congress must divide all available money among the agencies, and almost always they cut agency budgets from the levels authorized.

3)      Hearings - Congressional committees may hold hearings as part of their oversight responsibilities. Agency abuses may be questioned publicly, although the committee holding the hearings typically has the oversight responsibility, so a weak agency may reflect weak oversight.

4)      Rewriting legislation - If they wish to restrict the power of an agency, Congress may rewrite legislation or make it more detailed. Every statute is filled with instructions to its administrators, the more detailed the instructions, the better able Congress is to restrict the agency's power. Still, an agency usually finds a way to influence the policy, no matter how detailed the orders of Congress.


Agencies are also accountable to the chief administrator of the U.S. government: the president. Presidents use a number of methods to impress their policy preferences on the bureaucracy.

  • Appointments - The most obvious control the president has over the executive branch is his power to appoint the senior bureaucrats, including agency heads and subheads. If a president disagrees with the policies of an agency, he can appoint a head that agrees with him. This strategy may lead to problems because the agency can work against the new head, possibly seeking support in Congress. Also, because agencies tend to have strong points of view, a new head may sometimes be swayed to their beliefs.

  • Executive Orders - A president may issue executive orders to agencies that they must obey. More typically, aides may pass the word informally to agencies as to the president's wishes. Even though agencies may resist, they usually pay attention to the president's preferences.

  • Economic powers - The president may exercise authority through the Office of Management and the Budget, which is the president's own final authority on any agency's budget. The OMB may cut or add to an agency's budget, although Congress ultimately does the appropriating.

  • Reorganization - The president may reorganize or combine agencies to reward or punish them. This power is limited, however, because entrenched bureaucracies, Congress, and supporting interest groups may keep a president from acting as he might like.


Although interest groups have no formal control over agencies, the informal ties between them may greatly influence the implementation of policy. Interest groups may provide agencies with valuable information they need to execute a policy. Interest groups may pressure agency bureaucrats to interpret policy in ways that are favorable to the interests they represent. Bureau chiefs may also recruit interest groups as allies in pursuing common goals. They often share with them a common view that more money should be spent on federal programs run by the bureau in question.


Alliances among bureaucrats, interest groups, and congressional subcommittee members and staff sometimes form to promote their common causes. Such an alliance is sometimes described as an iron triangle. These triangles are sometimes so strong that they are referred to as sub governments - the place where the real decisions are made. For example, an important issue that government has recently addressed is the effect of tobacco on health and the government's role in regulating it. The tobacco farmers and industry have numerous interest groups, a "tobacco lobby" that provide information to the tobacco division of the Department of Agriculture and to subcommittees of the House and Senate agricultural committees. They support the agency's budget requests and make contributions to the election campaigns of the subcommittee members. The subcommittees pass legislation affecting tobacco farmers and other members of the industry and approval higher budget requests from the agency. The agency gives the subcommittees information, help with constituents' complaints, and develop rules on tobacco production and prices. They all have a common interest - the promotion of tobacco farming and industry, and they can help one another achieve their goals. As a result, the president and Congress beyond the subcommittee have little decision-making power.


The iron triangle may be criticized because interest groups today are so prolific that they are bound to create cross-demands on subcommittees and the bureaucracy. In the tobacco issue discussed above, interest groups have formed demanding that tobacco products be banned or heavily restricted by the federal government. With these counter-demands, the policymaking process would not run so smoothly and would broaden the number of people involved in the system. The issue is discussed on many levels, both inside and outside government. An agency, then, can be described as being embedded, not in an iron triangle, but in an issue network. These issue networks consist of people in interest groups, on congressional staffs, in universities, and in the mass media who regularly debate an issue. The networks are contentious, with arguments and disagreements occurring along partisan, ideological, and economic lines. When a president appoints a new agency head, he will often choose someone from the issue network who agrees with his views.

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