2.12—The Bureaucracy 

The federal bureaucracy is the term for the many people who work behind the scenes. Congress writes legislation, presidents sign legislation into law, and the bureaucracy is tasked with bringing those laws to life and making their intended effects reality.

What you need to learn

The structure and main responsibilities of the federal bureaucracy

Structure of the Bureaucracy



independent regulatory commissions

government corporation

Congressional Interactions

iron triangle

issue networks

Roles of the Bureaucracy


compliance monitoring

Staffing the Bureaucracy

spoils system

merit based system

civil service reforms

The Bureaucracy 

Essential Question: How does the bureaucracy carry out the responsibilities of the federal government?

The federal government provides many services, such as maintaining interstate highways, coordinating air traffic at airports and in flight, protecting borders, enforcing laws, and delivering mail. Congress has passed a law and created one or more executive branch departments or agencies to carry out these responsibilities of government. The federal bureaucracy is the vast, hierarchical organization of executive branch employees—close to 3 million people ranging from members of the president’s Cabinet to accountants at the Internal Revenue Service—that take care of the federal government’s business.

As the nation has grown, so has the government and the bureaucracy. Federal agencies interpret, administer, and enforce the laws that Congress has passed. These responsibilities combined with administrative or bureaucratic discretion have created a powerful institution.

Today’s bureaucracy is a product of 200 years of increased public expectation and increased federal responsibilities. Government professionals assure the executive agenda and congressional mandates are implemented and followed. The bureaucracy is involved in every issue of the nation and provides countless services to U.S. citizens.

Structure of the Bureaucracy

The executive hierarchy is a vast structure of governing bodies headed by professional bureaucrats. They include departments, agencies, commissions, and a handful of private-public organizations known as government corporations.

Cabinet Secretaries

To help manage the bureaucracy, presidents today appoint more than 2,000 upper-level management positions, deputy secretaries, and bureau chiefs; many of these appointments require Senate confirmation. Most of these people tend to be in the president’s party and have experience in a relevant field of government or the private sector.

President John F. Kennedy named his brother, Robert, as the nation’s attorney general. President Barack Obama brought with him the Chicago superintendent of schools to serve as his secretary of education. President Donald Trump named fellow New York financiers and Wall Street moguls to direct economic agencies.


The president oversees the executive branch through a structured system of 15 departments. Newer departments include Energy, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security. Departments have been renamed and divided into multiple departments. The largest department is by far the Department of Defense. Each Cabinet secretary directs a department. Though different secretaries handle different areas of jurisdictions, and surely have different pressures and face different issues, they are all paid the same salary.


The departments contain agencies that divide the departments’ goals and workload. In addition to the term agency, these subunits may be referred to as divisions, bureaus, offices, services, administrations, and boards. The Department of Homeland Security houses the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Coast Guard, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). These agencies deal with protecting the country and its citizens. There are hundreds of agencies, many of which have headquarters in Washington, DC, as well as regional offices in large U.S. cities. The president appoints the head of each agency, typically referred to as the “director.” Most directors serve under a president during a four- or eight-year term. Some serve longer terms as defined in the statute that creates the agency.

The FBI is a law enforcement agency. Additional agencies fill the bureaucracy—embassies and ambassadors work within the State Department and tax collectors at the Internal Revenue Service work under the umbrella of the Treasury Department. Independent agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), are also in the executive branch bureaucracy, but they are not connected to a department. Congress has structured these in this way to avoid undue influence from a department. The much more complicated independent regulatory agencies can create policies with the enforcement of law for unique industries or jurisdictions. (See Topic 2.13.)

Commissions and Government Corporations

Cabinet agencies and executive agencies have one head. Independent commissions have a body (board) that consists of five to seven members. Members of these boards and commissions have staggered terms to ensure that a president cannot completely replace them with his own cronies. For example, if the Federal Reserve Board was composed of members appointed by one president, they could boost re-election chances by manipulating the interest rate and artificially stimulating the economy as an election nears. Such an action would make the agencies and commissions political rather than neutral. Government corporations are a hybrid of a government agency and a private company. These started to appear in the 1930s, and they are usually created when the government wants to overlap with the private sector.

Tasks Performed by the Bureaucracy

When Congress creates departments and agencies, it defines the organization’s mission and empowers it to carry out the mission. The legislature gives the departments broad goals, as they administer several agencies and a large number of bureaucrats within those departments. Agencies have more specific goals, and independent regulatory agencies have even more specialized responsibilities in their administrative mission.

Writing and Enforcing Regulations

The legislation that creates and defines the departments and agencies often gives wide latitude as to how bureaucrats administer the law. Though all executive branch organizations have a degree of discretion in how they carry out the law, the independent regulatory agencies and commissions have greater leeway and power to shape and enforce national policies than the others.
Take, for example, the chief passage from the 1970 Clean Water Act that charged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enforce it, “The nation’s waters should be free of pollutants in order to protect the health of our citizens and preserve natural habitats. Individuals or companies shall not pollute the nation’s water. If they do, they will be fined or jailed in accordance with the law. The EPA shall set pollution standards and shall have the authority to make rules necessary to carry out this Act.”
Few of the 535 legislators who helped pass this act are experts in the environmental sciences. So they delegated this authority to the EPA and keep in contact with the agency to assure that this mission is accomplished.

Enforcement and Fines

Like a court, the regulatory agencies, commission, and boards within the bureaucracy can impose fines or other punishments. This administrative adjudication targets industries or companies, not individual citizens. For example, the federal government collected civil penalties paid in connection with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill ranging from about $400 million in fiscal year 2013 to about $160 million in fiscal year 2016.
One key aspect of enforcement is compliance monitoring, making sure the firms and companies that are subject to industry regulations are following those standards and provisions. (See Topic 2.14 for more on compliance monitoring.)

Testifying Before Congress

Cabinet secretaries and agency directors are often experts in their field. For this reason, they frequently appear before congressional committees to provide expert testimony. For example, former FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2017 about matters related to his bureau’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election of 2016. In September 2017, Deputy Secretary of State John L. Sullivan testified

Iron Triangles and Issue Networks

Over time, congressional committees and agencies become well acquainted. Members of Congress and their staffs work with and rely upon the expert advice and information provided by the bureaucracy. In addition, lawmakers and leadership in the executive branch may have worked together in the past. At the same time, interest groups press their agendas with relevant federal agencies. Industry can also create political action committees (PACs) to impact policy and its success. These special interests meet with and make donations to members of Congress as elections near. (See Topic 5.6.) They also meet with bureaucrats during the rule-making process (see Topic 2.13) in an ongoing effort to shape rules that affect them.
The relationship among these three entities—an agency, a congressional committee, and an interest group—is called an iron triangle because the three-way interdependent relationships are so strong. The three points of the triangle join forces to create policy. Iron triangles establish tight relationships that are often collectively beneficial. Bureaucrats have an incentive to cooperate with congressional members who fund and oversee their agencies. Committee members have an incentive to pay attention to interest groups that can provide policy information and reward them with PAC donations. Interest groups and agencies generally are out to advance similar goals from the start. However, at times iron triangles are criticized for those goals when they are exclusively for the benefit of special interest and not for the common good.
Recently, scholars have observed the power and influence of issue networks. Issue networks include committee staffers (often the experts and real authors of legislation), academics, advocates, leaders of think tanks, interest groups, and/or the media. These experts and stakeholders—sometimes at odds with one another on matters unrelated to the issue they are addressing—collaborate to create specific policy on one issue. The policymaking web has grown because of so many overlapping issues, the proliferation of interest groups, and the influence of industry. Multiple actors and institutions interact to produce and implement possible policies.

From Patronage to Merit

For the bureaucracy to do its job well, federal employees need to be professional, specialized, and politically neutral. Reforms over the years have helped create an environment in which those goals can be achieved.

The Spoils System

In the early days of the nation, the bureaucracy became a place to reward loyal party leaders with federal jobs, a practice known as patronage. Jefferson filled every vacancy with members of his party. As presidents of different parties came and went, this “rotation system” continued regardless of merit or performance of appointees. On Andrew Jackson’s Inauguration Day in 1829, job-hungry mobs pushed into the White House, aggressively seeking patronage jobs. Congressmen began recommending fellow party members, and senators-with advice and consent power-asserted their influence on the process.

Presidents appointed regional and local postmasters in the many branch offices across the nation expecting loyalty in return. This type of patronage system, which came to be known as the spoils system, made the U.S. Post Office one of the main agencies to run party machinery.

By the end of the Civil War, the spoils system, with ample opportunities for government corruption, was

thoroughly entrenched in state and federal politics.

Civil Service Reform

The desire for the best government rather than a government of friends and family became a chief concern among certain groups and associations. Moral-based movements such as emancipation, temperance, and women’s suffrage also encouraged taming or dismantling the spoils system. Reformers called for candidate appointments based on merit, skill, and experience.

In 1870, Congress passed a law that authorized the president to create rules and regulations for a civil service. Support for this reform gradually faded, however, until a murder of national consequence brought attention back to the issue. Soon after James Garfield was sworn in as president in 1881, an eccentric named Charles Guiteau began insisting Garfield appoint him to a political office. Garfield denied his requests. On July 2, only three months into the president’s term, Guiteau shot Garfield twice as he was about to board a train. Garfield lay wounded for months before he finally died.

Garfield’s assassination brought attention to the extreme cases of patronage and encouraged more comprehensive legislation. Congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883 to prevent the constant reward to loyal party members. The law ultimately created the merit system, which included competitive, written exams for many job applicants. The law also created a bipartisan Civil Service Commission to oversee the process and prevented officials from requiring federal employees to contribute to political campaigns.

The establishment of the civil service and an attempt by the U.S. government during the Industrial Era (1876-1900) to regulate the economy and care for the needy brought about the modern administrative state. The bureaucratic system became stocked with qualified experts dedicated to their federal jobs.

In 1887, the government created its first regulatory commission, the Interstate Commerce Commission, to enforce federal law regarding train travel and products traveling across state lines. The Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) brought attention to the meatpacking industry and other food industries, and thus, agencies were created to address these concerns. The Sixteenth Amendment (1913), which gave Congress the power to collect taxes on income, put more money into Treasury coffers, which helped the federal bureaucracy expand.

Improving the Effectiveness of the Bureaucracy

Efforts to make the bureaucracy a more professional and efficient institution of the government continued into the 20th century. President Carter promised, and delivered, reforms to the federal bureaucracy. The Civil Service Reform Act (1978) altered how a bureaucrat is dismissed, limited preferences for veterans in hopes of balancing the genders in federal employment and put upper-level appointments back into the president’s hands. It also promoted merit and performance among bureaucrats while giving the president more power to move those not performing their jobs successfully.

The Civil Service Commission established by the Pendleton Act operated until the 1978 reforms replaced it with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The OPM runs the merit system and coordinates the federal application process for jobs and hiring. The OPM’s goals include promoting the ideals of public service, finding the best people for federal jobs, and preserving merit system principles. Many of the larger, more established agencies do their own hiring.

In 1993, President Clinton announced a six-month review of the federal government. The National Performance Review (NPR) became Clinton’s key document in assessing the federal bureaucracy. The review was organized to identify problems and offer solutions and ideas for government savings. The group focused on diminishing the paperwork burden and placing more discretionary responsibility with the agencies. The report made almost 400 recommendations designed to cut inefficiency, put customers first, empower employees, and produce better and less-expensive government. One report, “From Red Tape to Results,” characterized the federal government as an industrial-era structure operating in an information age. The bureaucracy had become so inundated with rules and procedures that it could not perform the way Congress had intended.