Bureaucrats put government policy into practice, and therefore the federal bureaucracy has a large impact on policymaking. In order to get their policies passed, the president and Congress must work with the bureaucracy. Controlling the bureaucracy can be difficult for the following reasons:

  • Size: The president cannot monitor everyone or even every group within the bureaucracy, so much of what bureaucrats do goes unmonitored.
  • Expertise of bureaucrats: The people who administer policy often know much more about those issues than the president or members of Congress. This expertise gives the bureaucrats power.
  • Civil service laws: Firing bureaucrats, even for incompetence, is very difficult.
  • Clientele groups: Many federal agencies provide services to thousands of people, and those people sometimes rally to defend the agency.
  • Policy implementation: When Congress creates a new program, it does not establish all the details on how the policy will be implemented. Instead, Congress passes enabling legislation, which grants power to an agency to work out the specifics. Although the agency must stay within some bounds, it has a great deal of latitude in determining how to carry out the wishes of Congress.


The federal bureaucracy makes rules that affect how programs operate, and these rules must be obeyed, just as if they were laws. The rule-making process for government agencies occurs in stages. After Congress passes new regulatory laws, the agency charged with implementing the law proposes a series of rules, which are published in the Federal Register. Interested parties can comment on the rules, either at public hearings or by submitting documents to the agency. After the agency publishes the final regulations, it must wait sixty days before enforcing those rules. During that time, Congress can review and change the rules if it desires. If Congress makes no changes, the rules go into effect at the end of sixty days.

Federal regulations affect many groups of people, who have often challenged those regulations in court. Because litigation is a slow and expensive way to change regulations, Congress passed the Negotiated Rulemaking Act of 1990 to limit the need for litigation by opening the rulemaking process to those affected by it. The act encouraged federal agencies to engage in negotiated rule-making. If an agency agrees to the proposed regulations, for example, it publishes the proposals in the Federal Register and then participates in a negotiating committee overseen by a third party. Agreements reached by the committee are then open to the normal public review process. Parties to negotiated rule-making agree not to sue over the rules.

Deregulation and Reregulation

Since the Carter Administration in the late 1970s, the federal government has frequently sought to remove regulations established by earlier administrations, a practice called deregulation. The federal bureaucracy usually carries out deregulation, often with encouragement from the president. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, for example, the government deregulated the airline industry, significantly increasing competition and lowering prices. Sometimes the federal government changes its regulations significantly, a process known as reregulation.

Bureaucrats as Policymakers

In theory, federal bureaucracies merely carry out the policies enacted by Congress and the president. In practice, however, many scholars argue that the bureaucracy plays a significant role in federal policymaking via iron triangles and issue networks.

Iron Triangles

An iron triangle is an alliance of people from three groups: a congressional subcommittee that deals with an issue, the executive agency that enforces laws on that issue, and private interest groups. Often, the members of the triangle know each other well, and people frequently move from one corner of the triangle to another. The members of the iron triangle work together to create policy that serves their interests.

Example: An iron triangle might form around a particular weapons system. The Defense Department may want a new weapons system, members of congressional Armed Services Committees may want to look tough on defense by voting for a new system, and military suppliers want to make money by selling weapons systems. Therefore, it is in the interests of all three parties to push Congress to authorize the new weapons system.

Issue Networks

An issue network is a group of individuals who support a specific policy, not a broader issue. The three parts of the iron triangle are often parts of a single issue network, but other people may also be a part of the network, including experts, scholars, and the media. The influence of issue networks is similar to that of iron triangles: By working together, members of an issue network can shape and determine policy.

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