There is now a considerable body of evidence, much of it guided by a principal-agent model, that suggests that public bureaucracies are much more responsive to political principals than previously has been thought. There is, for example, a series of studies that demonstrates fairly conclusively that presidents are able, within limits, to influence the behavior of federal agencies under their supervision and leadership (e.g., Moe 1985; Wood 1988; Wood and Waterman 1991 and 1994; Golden 2000). That same body of evidence suggests that the U.S. Congress is not only engaging in more oversight but also doing it more effectively. A number of scholars have concluded that members of Congress have created new mechanisms of control--fire alarm oversight and the use of the Administrative Procedures Act--that provide members with both the means and the motive to achieve effective oversight (see, most notably, McCubbins and Schwartz 1984; McCubbins, Noll, and Weingast 1989). At the same time, scholars have discovered (and in some cases, rediscovered) the limits political principals face in exerting control over their bureaucratic agencies including interest groups, the presence of multiple principals, the attitudes and actions of individual bureaucrats, and information asymmetries--which works to the advantage of the bureaucracy (Krause 1999; Golden 2000). In addition, as we note below, there is some evidence to suggest that political principals vary in their preferences for particular mechanisms of control.
The Republican takeover of Congress following the 1994 election provides a unique vantage point from which to revisit the issue of political control. Republican victories in the House and Senate were important from a number of perspectives. From an institutional perspective, the Republican revolution was not only the first time since the early 1950s that the party controlled both houses of Congress, but it held out the possibility of congressional (versus presidential) government as party leaders used the Contract with America to set Congress' and, for that matter, the nation's agenda. For regulatory agencies, a Republican Congress represented a more immediate challenge. Led by Tom Delay, House Republicans mounted an attack on regulation that rivaled the efforts of the Reagan administration to get the federal government "off the backs of the American people." Finally, from an analytic perspective, the Republican takeover offers a unique historical opportunity to examine political control. By necessity, most of the literature looks at either the impact of changes in presidential administrations or variations in the character (e.g., committee ideology) of what had been until the mid-nineties a Democratic Congress. The 1994 elections offer scholars the chance to examine the impact of a much more infrequent political event--a change in the partisan control of Congress--on the character of federal regulation.
Our analysis looks at how the Republican regulatory challenge played out in the 104th Congress and its effect on the rate of federal regulation. Two sets of findings are presented below. First, we outline and discuss the means by which congressional Republicans sought to achieve regulatory reform. Second, we look at changes in the rate of regulation during the 1990s at four of the agencies targeted by the Republican leadership--the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) in the Department of Interior.
REGULATORY REFORM IN THE 104TH CONGRESS
Elected and nonelected officials have long understood the difficulty of controlling the actions of administrative agencies. Grants of discretion, uncertainty, divergent values, and an information asymmetry that favors bureaucrats make control problematic. For their part, elected officials have devised a number of mechanisms to overcome these and other obstacles to control. Traditionally, Congress and the president have relied on budget authority, oversight hearings, and appointment powers in an effort to ensure that agencies implement laws as intended. The record to date, however, suggests that traditional means of control are limited in their ability to detect and sanction shirking on the part of agency officials (McCubbins and Schwartz 1984; McCubbins, Noll, and Weingast 1987; Meier 1999).
In recent years, scholars have learned that political actors turn to additional mechanisms of control in an effort to mitigate the problems of information asymmetries and agency shirking. McCubbins and Schwartz (1984), for example, argue that members of Congress engage in fire alarm oversight to reduce and shift the costs of monitoring agencies. Similarly, McCubbins, Noll, and Weingast (1987) and others contend that elected officials use administrative procedures to enfranchise key constituents and structure agency decision making.
Scholars have also discovered that political actors vary in terms of their preferences for particular control mechanisms. Moe (1989) argues, for example, that where a single interest group or a coalition of groups dominate congressional policy making, those interests will attempt to put into place personnel, rules, and organizational structures that protect group interests in the future by stacking the deck in the groups' favor and by insulating the agency from political influence. In contrast, those groups that were not part of the original winning coalition will seek organizational rules and structures that make subsequent agency decisions more transparent and more amenable to political interference. Interestingly enough, Moe contends that members of Congress have few a priori structural preferences, choosing instead to adopt rules and procedures that meet the needs of dominant interests. Presidents, however, prefer rules that place administrative activities within the executive branch (versus independent regulatory commissions), allow presidents …