The Bureaucracy and Congress: Sources of Power & Influence

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  • 0:03 Congress & Bureaucracy
  • 0:43 Creating, Enabling, Reviewing
  • 3:11 The Iron Triangle
  • 5:45 Issue Networks
  • 8:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the relationship between the bureaucracy and Congress. We will focus especially on congressional powers to create, enable, and review the bureaucracy, as well as on the Iron Triangle and issue networks.

Congress and the Bureaucracy

On a boiling hot day in Washington, D.C., a senator and a bureaucrat sit down at the same table in a popular local ice cream shop and strike up an interesting conversation over their sweet treats. 'You know,' the bureaucrat tells the senator, 'I've always wondered about the relationship between your part of the government and mine. We're connected in so many different ways, but once in a while, I wonder how the whole thing works.'

'That's a good point,' the senator responds. 'I have some questions about that, too. Do you have a few minutes?' The bureaucrat nods and licks his spoon.

Creating, Enabling, Reviewing

'I guess we can start with how Congress is involved in creating, enabling, and reviewing the bureaucracy,' the senator says.

The bureaucrat jumps in, 'Actually, let's define bureaucracy first, just to be clear. It's the administrative organization that handles the day-to-day business of a government or society. The bureaucracy is made up of all kinds of agencies and departments, and right now it employs about four million workers.'

'Right,' the senator replies, 'and most of those agencies and departments were created by Congress. We can't administer all the laws we pass. We can't make them work practically in daily life, so we set up bureaucratic agencies and departments to do that for us. The first one, the Department of State, was created in 1789.'

'And the bureaucracy has grown from there,' the bureaucrat agrees with a nod. 'There are hundreds of agencies and departments now, all responsible for implementing the law, carrying it out on a daily basis in all the situations and circumstances of human life.'

'Indeed,' says the senator, 'and Congress enables you bureaucrats to do all that work, especially through funding. We hold the purse strings. Your agencies can't work without money, so we authorize your budgets and appropriate the authorized money as needed.'

'That's true,' the bureaucrat agrees, 'and if you guys don't think an agency or department is doing its job properly, or is spending too much money, you can withhold your authorization or not appropriate any funds. Then the agency could just disappear.'

'Yup!' the senator responds with a grin as he licks his ice cream, 'We have to keep a close eye on you bureaucrats to make sure you are doing your jobs properly and efficiently. The whole process is called oversight. Congress' subcommittees collect information about bureaucratic agencies and their performance from agencies themselves, from interest groups, and from constituents. Then they review budget and personnel issues, investigate complaints, and sometimes hold public hearings when necessary.'

Working Together: The Iron Triangle

'You legislators can make things uncomfortable for us bureaucrats sometimes,' the bureaucrat replies as he scrapes the last bit of hot fudge from his dish, 'but most of the time, I think we work together pretty well. In fact, political scientists have even come up with a couple models to describe our working relationship. The first one is called the Iron Triangle. Heard of it?'

'Sure!' the senator says, 'It's often defined as the policy-making coalition or relationship between bureaucratic agencies, congressional committees, and interest groups (those politically active people who gather around a common goal or issue).' He draws a triangle on a napkin and writes 'Congress,' 'bureaucracy,' and 'interest groups' at the three points. 'It's a symbiotic relationship,' he explains. 'You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.' He draws an arrow pointing from Congress to bureaucracy and back. 'We give you support and funding, and you implement our laws.' Then he draws an arrow pointing from bureaucracy to interest groups and back. 'You give interest groups special favors and keep regulation of their pet projects to a minimum, and in return, they lobby us in your favor.' Finally, he draws an arrow pointing from interest groups to Congress and back. 'Interest groups support us in elections, and we in Congress pass legislation to support their pet projects.'

'How about an example from real life?' the bureaucrat requests.

'Okay,' says the senator. 'Congress' subcommittees on agriculture work closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (a bureaucratic agency) and interest groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation. Congress funds and supports the USDA. The USDA faithfully implements the laws Congress makes. The Federation contributes to campaigns and votes for Congress people who support its views while lobbying Congress for further support for the USDA. See how that works?'

Working Together: Issue Networks

'Oh yes,' says the bureaucrat, as he looks thoughtfully down at his empty dish. 'You know, though, some political scientists are pulling back from the Iron Triangle. They think it's too simple to really describe the situation.'

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