38 Lecture Content

Bureaucratic Pathology

The year 2017 is slated to go down as having had one of the most active hurricane seasons in American, meteorological history. With “17 named storms, 10 of which became hurricanes, including six major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5),” inclement weather, and the government action it commands, is one of many ways to identify the federal bureaucracy at work in American polity. (64)

Formed in 1978 under the administration of Jimmy Carter, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was conceived as a cooperative plan between the federal government and state and local agencies to provide both, effective, disaster preparedness, as well as a broad range of relief efforts to American citizens in the wake of natural disasters. How well the government performs in this area is a matter of debate. (1)

Tropical Storm Harvey, August 28, 2017
Tropical Storm Harvey, August 28, 2017 by NASA/Randy Bresnik is in the Public Domain

For instance, FEMA praises itself for what it believes to be its “historic response” to Hurricane Harvey in Houston, TX in the late summer of 2017, while the impact of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in the very same season has left many questioning the efficacy of FEMA in handling catastrophic weather. (65) Altogether, the uncertainly in this area comes down to one factor alone; that is, expectations. The demand on government is high, especially in circumstances that involve massive loss. As such, citizens expect government officials — to include the bureaucracy — to act quickly and decisively in remedying the effects of such damages. (1)

On the other side of the spectrum, bureaucratic agencies, likewise, operate with high expectations. In the case of FEMA, it goes without saying that civil servants in this agency expect the government to provide them with the necessary tools — appropriate funding and logistics — to do the best, possible job in serving the American electorate. Because the two entities operate with such high expectations, there is always room for disappointment, as expectations shift to reality. Notwithstanding, in light of this gap, the federal bureaucracy exists to affect change in nearly every facet of American society. From protecting the water we drink, to the roads we drive, or the food we eat, the bureaucracy is the government’s conduit for getting things done. (1)

Bureaucratic Checks and Balances

Checks and balances are the hallmark of American democracy. As such, Americans reject any variation from this constitutional principle as a direct affront to our republican form of government. Still, in possessing quasi‑legislative and judicial powers, the federal bureaucracy has often been deemed an unaccountable, fourth branch of government. Checks and balances can be discerned by observing the bureaucracies of other developed democracies.

In parliamentary democracies, like that of Israel, Germany, and Japan, bureaucratic leadership is markedly distinct from that in the U.S. In particular, senior members of the legislature go on to become ministers, the equivalent of cabinet secretaries in the U.S. This means these members of the legislature, in addition to drafting laws, likewise carry out the law, a practice reserved for unelected impartial members of the civil service in the U.S.

Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, at his confirmation hearing.
Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, at his confirmation hearing by Office of the President-elect is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

In addition to blurring institutional lines, the simplicity of these systems also bars the scrutiny of the public over such ascendancies to power. There is no long, grueling confirmation process before a hostile Congress to ensure “fitness” for duty, so to speak. Instead, all one has to do is to win an election and work his or her way up the party hierarchy to become a minister.

With this in mind, it is important to revisit the original — assertion here; that is, the federal bureaucracy represents an unaccountable fourth branch of the federal government. The aforementioned should aid us all in countering this theory with a resounding no (1) The premise behind this rebuff is found in the Constitution itself wherein members of Congress are barred from taking “any civil office.” (1, 34) This means that members of Congress may not take posts in the bureaucracy or the judiciary. Thus, in this way, the doctrine of separation of powers does, in fact, remain intact, a reality that would bode well with the Founders. (1)

Bureaucratic Power

In a democracy, power must ultimately rest with the people, which mean that public policy should be indicative of such an arrangement. So, who controls the bureaucracy?

The People

All bureaucratic agencies exist to serve the people, as evidenced by the seal of most executive departments, indicating their goal toserve the people . Even so, how much control do the people actually wield over the bureaucracy? Surprisingly, the American electorate exercises very little control over bureaucrats. Such absence of power is due largely in part to the technical nature of bureaucratic functions of which the vast majority of Americans are unfamiliar with. For instance, how many Americans are acquainted with the notion of tax penalties for corporations? The answer is very few of us. As such, we the people require someone else to act on our behalf.

The President

Constitutionally speaking, the president controls the bureaucracy as specified in Article II, Section I: “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” (55) As such, the president is the bureaucrat-in-chief, essentially controlling the bureaucracy from the top through his appointees. The people make this possible by electing presidents to exercise such discretion. (1)

However, controlling the bureaucracy is no easy feat. With over 2 million men and women under his command, the president, like the people, requires an additional entity to work jointly with him in this regard. (1, 66)


While the bureaucracy belongs to the executive branch; Congress exerts a significant degree of power over the bureaucracy, perhaps more so than the people or the president. Congress employs this power in three critical areas:

With the power of the purse , Congress may seek to hack the budgets of bureaucratic agencies whose objectives members of Congress deem to be unnecessary and/or unconstitutional.
Constitutionally empowered to make laws, Congress, in terms of the bureaucracy, may be poised to amend programs or deny their reauthorizations.
With power to oversee the executive branch, Congress may utilize their police power to investigate activities of the White House, to include bureaucratic functions. In fact, so powerful is the right to oversight, that even the mention of such activity poses a threat to bureaucratic abuse, overreach, and incompetency.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Defense Department’s response to the attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , testify during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Defense Department’s response to the attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya by Secretary of Defense is in the Public Domain

Generally speaking, the bureaucracy is not a run-away horse, with no one at the reigns. Subject to the president and Congress, who are in turn subject to the people. The federal bureaucracy belongs to the people as it should. (1)


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