Gov: Federal Bureaucracy

Bureaucratic Agency1 The federal bureaucracy is organized into departments, agencies, boards, commissions, corporations, and advisory committees. The 15 cabinet departments include the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Interior, Agriculture, Justice, Commerce, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Health and Human Services, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security. The president appoints each department’s secretary, undersecretary, and assistant secretaries. Each department has bureaus or agencies within it. The federal bureaucracy also includes more than 100 independent organizations that are not part of the departments. Examples of independent agencies include the Social Security Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Some independent agencies are government corporations, such as the United States Postal Service, Amtrak, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The major checks on the bureaucracy occur through the president, Congress, and the courts. The president has some power to reorganize the bureaucracy and the authority to appoint the political head of each agency. The president also has management tools, such as the executive budget, that can be used to limit administrators’ discretion. Congress has influence on bureaucratic agencies through its authorization and funding powers and through various devices including enabling provisions, sunset provisions, and oversight hearings that can increase administrators’ accountability. The judiciary’s role in ensuring the bureaucracy’s accountability is smaller than that of the elected branches, but the courts have the authority to force agencies to act in accordance with legislative intent, established procedures, and constitutionally guaranteed rights. The Senior Executive Service, administrative law judges, whistleblowing, and demographic representativeness are internal mechanisms for holding the bureaucracy accountable.

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