The federal bureaucracy is huge: roughly 2.6 million employees, plus many freelance contractors. Everybody in the bureaucracy works to administer the law. For the most part, the executive branch manages the federal bureaucracy. Although the executive branch controls the majority of the federal bureaucracy, the legislative and judiciary branches also have some influence. Congress, for example, controls the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service, and the Government Accountability Office, among other bureaucracies. Through its power of oversight, Congress also monitors the federal bureaucracy to make sure that it acts properly. The courts sometimes get involved in the bureaucracy when issues of law and constitutionality arise, such as when a civil service regulation is violated or if an agency oversteps its jurisdiction.

There are five types of organizations in the federal bureaucracy:

  1. Cabinet departments
  2. Independent executive agencies
  3. Independent regulatory agencies
  4. Government corporations
  5. Presidential commissions

Cabinet Departments

The executive office consists of fifteen departments, as shown by the table on the next page. Each department is headed by a secretary.



Date Established

Housing and Urban Development1965
Health and Human Services1979
Veterans’ Affairs1988
Homeland Security2002

Independent Executive Agencies

Independent executive agencies are line organizations that do not fall under the control of any one department. Presidents often like new agencies to be independent so that they have more direct control over them. Congress decides how to fit new independent executive agencies within the existing bureaucracy.

Independent Regulatory Agencies

An independent regulatory agency is an agency outside of the cabinet departments that makes and enforces rules and regulations. The president nominates people to regulatory boards and agencies, and the Senate confirms them. Generally, these bureaucrats serve set terms in office and can only be removed for illegal behavior. Regulatory agencies tend to function independently from the elected parts of government, which gives them the freedom to make policy without any political interference.

Example: The Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Election Commission, and the Federal Reserve Board are all powerful independent regulatory agencies.

Government Corporations

Some federal agencies resemble corporations in that they function in a businesslike manner and charge clients for their services. Government corporations differ in some important ways from private corporations. For example, government corporations do not have stockholders and do not pay dividends if they make a profit; instead, the government corporation retains all profits.

Examples: The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which guarantees deposits up to $250,000, and the Post Office are government corporations.

Presidential Commissions

Presidents regularly appoint presidential commissions to investigate problems and make recommendations. Although most of these commissions are temporary—such as President George W. Bush’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security or the September 11th Commission—some are permanent, such as the Commission on Civil Rights. Presidents are not bound to follow the recommendations of commissions, even though they often do.

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