2.14—Holding the Bureaucracy Accountable

The delegated powers and rule making authority of the federal bureaucracy allow departments and agencies to issue regulations that hold the same power of a law passed by Congress. That’s a lot of power considering these rules and regulations are enforceable under the penalty of significant fines and or prison time. This section teaches you how each branch of government provides checks and balances over that power.

What you need to learn

How do the three branches of government hold the bureaucracy accountable and provide checks and balances of their discretionary authority?

Congressional Oversight

committee hearings

power of the purse

congressional authorization of spending

Budget and Impoundment Control Act

Judicial Oversight


judicial review

Executive Oversight
Formal Powers


Informal Powers

executive order

Holding the Bureaucracy Accountable

Essential Question
How is the bureaucracy held accountable by congressional oversight and by the president in carrying out the goals of the administration?

Congress can legislate federal agencies into existence when they see a need

The legislative branch can also define the organization’s role and sets the budget for federal departments. The president is tasked with appointing a leader and ensuring the organization executes its responsibilities. Bureaucratic agencies have to answer to both the executive and legislative branches, a requirement which should lead to an efficiently functioning federal bureaucracy. However, the oversight, or supervision, of two branches, especially during a time of divided government, can cause inefficiency in the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy can, at times, struggle to effectively handle their responsibilities. Nonetheless, despite the popular perception that the bureaucracy is an incompetent, oversized system, most federal functions are completed in an efficient manner through the bureaucracy.

Accountability for the Bureaucracy

Determining who is ultimately responsible for any bureaucratic decision is not always clear. Congress creates the big-picture laws and some of the regulations The president shapes the departments and agencies when appointing Cabinet secretaries and agency directors who have discretionary authority. Challenges to department directives and agency rulings come in the courts, which may uphold or overrule the executive branch body while interest groups and industry try to influence regulations and their enforcement. With so many players interacting with these executive branch sub-units, it is difficult to tell to whom the bureaus, administrations, and offices are beholden.

Also, in trying to follow prescribed law, these executive branch bodies still face political constraints and challenges despite their discretionary latitude.

Cabinet secretaries serve at the pleasure of the president but have to please many people, including, to some degree, their subordinates and staff in the field carrying out the law. These secretaries and their employees report to Congress and thus must please legislative members, especially when it comes to funding.

Congressional Oversight

The bureaucracy’s discretion in rule-making authority raises many questions. Does it violate the separation of powers doctrine? How democratic is it for a handful of un-elected experts to create rules that entire industries must follow? Is due process followed when an agency fines an individual or company for violating a policy that no elected representative voted for and on which no American court ruled?

Committee Hearings

Congress has a responsibility to assure that the agencies and departments charged with carrying out the law are in fact doing so and doing so fairly. Congressional oversight is essentially a check and balance on the agencies themselves and competes with the president for influence over them. With some regularity, House and Senate committees hold oversight hearings to address agency action, inaction, or their relationship with the agency.

The list of standing House and Senate committees parallels a list of notable agencies. For example, the House Committee on Homeland Security has jurisdiction over the department with the same name. The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry oversees the National Parks Service, which is part of the Department of the Interior. Committees and subcommittees receive reports from directors and call the directors to testify. Cabinet secretaries, agency directors, and other ranking bureaucrats testify before the relevant committee. Sometimes these are routine and collegial encounters that allow for the agency or department to update Congress on how it is doing, what goals it has accomplished, or what plans it may have. At other times, the committee with oversight jurisdiction will call a hearing to get to the bottom of a thorny issue.

Power of the Purse

In addition to general oversight, Congress determines how much funding these organizations receive, asks top-level bureaucrats how they can improve their goals, and sometimes tries to constrain agencies. With the power of the purse, Congress can determine the financial state of an agency and its success when it allocates money. The agency cannot spend public funds until a committee or subcommittee first passes authorization of spending measures. These measures state the maximum amount the agency can spend on certain programs. The distribution of money defined in such an authorization may be a one-time allotment of funds, or it could be a recurring annual allotment. The agency will not receive the actual funds until each house’s appropriations committee and the full chamber also approve the spending. These appropriations-funds set aside for a certain purpose-are typically made annually as part of the federal budget.

The President and the Bureaucracy

Departments and agencies must compete with others for funding and for the president’s ear. Similar departments and agencies have overlapping goals. They all contend that with more money they could better complete their missions. At the same time, the president exerts authority and influence to make sure their executive ideology is delivered in policy. Through the regulatory review process, administered through the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), all regulations that have a significant effect on the economy, public health, and other major aspects of policy undergo close review. Any regulations that conflict with the president’s agenda may be questioned, revised, and even eliminated. This office is part of the Office of Management and Budget, which prepares the president’s annual budget proposal and reviews the budget and programs of the executive departments.

In 2017, during the Trump administration, the Federal Communications Commission rolled back the regulations covering oversight of Internet providers, often referred to as “net neutrality.” This rollback lifted regulations from the Obama administration that required cable and telecommunications companies to treat all web traffic equally. The deregulation followed part of President Trump’s ideology- as in other areas, he called for the government to reduce regulation on business so that businesses could grow and prosper in a freer marketplace.

Policy Goals and Streamlining

The bureaucracy can be either an impediment or a vehicle for fulfilling presidential goals. When the bureaucracy works against or impedes the administration’s ideas and goals, presidents are encouraged to shake up or restructure the system. Presidents have used both their formal powers, such as the power to appoint officials, and their informal powers, such as executive orders and persuasion, to make the bureaucracy work for their executive agenda.

Presidents have also tried to curb bureaucratic waste. President Ronald Reagan, who arrived in Washington in 1981, stated in his inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” To gain greater control over departments and agencies, he put people who agreed with the Reagan agenda into top positions. He sought officials who would show loyalty to the White House and reduce administrative personnel.

Policy Challenges

One key aspect of enforcement for government agencies is compliance monitoring, making sure the firms and companies that are subject to industry regulations are following those standards and provisions. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, monitors for compliance in several ways. It assesses and documents compliance, requiring permits for certain activities. It collects measurable scientific evidence by taking water or air samples near a factory to measure the amount of pollutants or emissions coming from the factory. After an EPA decision or ruling, the agency checks whether those subject to the ruling are following it. Officials and regulators of the EPA also go back to the rule writers about the successes or failures of the rules and procedures to either assure fairness in future rules or to tighten them up.