Bureaucracy. It’s a word that inspires confidence, right? Or maybe just headaches…and that’s not just from memorizing all of the ABC agency names. You know, this isn’t how our government always worked. So it’s worth asking: what exactly is the bureaucratic state? How did it develop? And does it actually work for the best interest of Americans? Let’s break it down.
Fully understanding the rise of the bureaucratic state will require a journey through American history – but first, let’s review some basic civics. The U.S. Constitution set up three branches of government: The legislative branch, which creates laws; the executive branch, which executes – or carries out – laws; and the judicial branch, which arbitrates the law. Notice that each branch has a separate role – and that only one was given authority to make the laws. That’s because the legislative branch – Congress – is the branch most directly accountable to the American people. If the people disapprove of their legislator’s job performance… they can vote them out and replace them with someone they think will pass better laws. Makes sense, right?
Now under the executive branch, you’ve got the president, the vice president… and those are really the only offices the Constitution specifies. Article Two, Section Two states the president can appoint ambassadors and other positions, and also acknowledges the existence of “principal officer[s] in each of the executive departments”… officers and departments that the Constitution says nothing more about.
As the first president, George Washington had a lot of leeway in developing his branch – selecting his four principal officers and grouping them all into an advisory board called the cabinet. None of it specified by, but all of it within the bounds of, the Constitution. Going forward, the executive branch continued this basic framework established by Washington. But a later president came along to influence how that framework would be staffed. Andrew Jackson entered the presidency as an enthusiastic supporter of patronage – also known as the spoils system. This system held that those who adamantly supported the president’s election and his party were given appointments to political office throughout all levels of government as a reward for their loyalty. As to whether these people had any qualifications or even desire to do a good job… well, that didn’t matter. Of course, the agreement included the appointees paying part of their salary to the political party enabling them. Because what use is investing in corruption if you don’t get some of your money back? While Jackson was by no means the first president to utilize the spoils system, he was the one to institutionalize it. And the executive branch proved a fruitful place to find cushy jobs for anyone sufficiently loyal to the president and his party.
This method of staffing would remain the norm for the next 50 years – until the Republican Party became divided over the practice. In 1880, the Republicans nominated James Garfield for the presidency – a man who moderately opposed the spoils system. To ease the other side, Chester A. Arthur was selected for Vice President – a low-level bureaucrat who owed his only government position to the spoils system. Their ticket won…but within months, President Garfield wound up assassinated. The killer, Charles Guiteau, was a firm believer in the spoils system – and considering himself critical to Garfield’s election, thought he was entitled to a government job. No one else seemed to agree. So Guiteau thought, if he killed President Garfield, spoils-advocate Arthur would then appoint him to federal office.
Yeah… so following Guiteau’s execution, now-President Arthur shocked everyone by doing a 180 and leading Congress to pass the Pendleton Act – which instituted the Civil Service Commission as a way to staff government jobs based on merit rather than patronage. It also made it very difficult to fire federal employees for political differences. While reform was necessary to root out corruption, this also unintentionally cleared the way for a coming paradigm shift. Just four years later, in 1887, college professor Woodrow Wilson published his essay “The Study of Administration.” Influenced by primarily German political philosophy, Wilson believed it was necessary to blur the lines between the branches of government and set up an administrative state able to both create AND execute laws. This administration would need to be further removed from accountability to the public, and instead simply be run by expert bureaucrats. He resented that, when it came to implementing such a vision, “Flaws in our constitution delayed us.”
While Professor Woodrow Wilson’s writings didn’t show much immediate impact, nearly thirty years later they would prove to be very influential on President… Woodrow Wilson. Under an ideology he coined “New Freedom,” President Wilson began to grow his bureaucratic state within the developed framework of the executive branch while the country focused on World War One. While the following Republican presidencies of Harding and Coolidge held back further growth of the new bureaucracy, in 1928 the Supreme Court dealt a major blow to the separation of powers by severely weakening the Nondelegation Doctrine – a doctrine holding that the legislature could not hand over its defined duties to another branch, or vice versa.
Now all the pieces were in place to allow for a dramatic expansion of the executive branch. All that was required was a crisis… something like a Great Depression. With Americans desperate for relief, President Franklin Roosevelt was free to truly realize the Wilsonian vision of an Administrative State – adding over 40 executive agencies to his regime. All of a sudden, it was unelected bureaucrats creating policy and setting the direction for the country rather than the people’s elected representatives. Not all of FDR’s agencies still exist – some merged, and some went away. But plenty more have risen to take their place. The Administrative Procedure Act of 1946 proved to be a double-edged sword: on the one side, it codified a requirement that agencies must collect public comments before deciding to move forward on policy. But on the other side, it cemented the bureaucratic state within the operations of the government. And following the 1984 Supreme Court Case, Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, the bureaucratic state has been granted virtually unchecked authority in pursuing its agenda.
This bureaucratic system has severed the relationship of accountability between the government and the governed. It’s actually really convenient for members of Congress – they can pass legislation giving broad, vague directives, and then leave it up to a given agency or department to make up the specifics. These are called regulations. It’s great for the legislator because if the regulations aren’t popular… well, they didn’t do it. Blame the faceless bureaucratic agency that neither you, nor your representative can vote out. But it’s the executive branch – so maybe if you vote in a new president, you can change that agency, right? Wrong.
The president can typically appoint the head of an agency or department. And the people under that. Maybe even the people under that. But eventually in the org chart, you’ll start reaching career bureaucrats who were there before these new appointees… and will be there after. Broadly speaking, many apply for these jobs because they believe in government as the solution – and aren’t about to let the new guy at the top interfere with that. So some will ignore directions and obstruct changes. Want to stop them? Too bad. Take the Pendleton Act’s well-meaning protections against firing for political purposes and combine it with the powerful federal public sector unions that will fight ruthlessly to protect all their members… and you’ve got a recipe for safe, entrenched bureaucrats free to pursue their own agendas. Wonder why the government never shrinks? Well here’s your answer.
Woodrow Wilson genuinely believed that if you made a bureaucrat secure and comfortable in his position, removed from accountability to the public or politicians, such a person would be enabled to devote their focus to the good of the American people. But history has proven him wrong. As President Calvin Coolidge warned, “Unless bureaucracy is constantly resisted, it breaks down representative government and overwhelms democracy. It is the one element in our institutions that sets up the pretense of having authority over everybody and being responsible to nobody.”
We need to work towards shrinking the bureaucratic state. And actually make it accountable to the American people. Because it’s become clear that the regulators need to be regulated.
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