Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It

By James Q. Wilson | Go to book overview
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ALMOST EVERY PRESIDENT in modern times has admitted to his advisors, if he has not shouted from the rooftops, that he rued the day a "disappointed office seeker" killed President Garfield, thereby energizing the civil-service reform movement. Presidents see much of the bureaucracy as their natural enemy and always are searching for ways to bring it to heel. Even though they can already make upward of four thousand appointments outside the merit system, many presidents would like to make even more. Those who do not want more appointments want better ones, and so they encourage the promotion into the top administrative ranks of senior civil servants who seem to be their ideological allies. And when they are not reaching for more numbers or searching for purer ideology, presidents reorganize agencies and create White House offices designed to oversee, coordinate, and (if necessary) do the work of the bureaucracy.

All this would seem quite strange to the British prime minister. Beyond her cabinet she makes perhaps a dozen "political" appointments to the bureaucracy and seems quite content with that. The British civil service is satirized, as in the popular television series Yes, Minister, but it is not confronted. In the mid-1940s, Labour prime ministers worried that the "Tory" civil service would undo their policies, but when that did not happen they stopped worrying and their successors spent little time trying to get "our kind of people" into top posts. Unlike the White House, Number 10 Downing Street is not filled with special assistants, special advisors, counselors, committees, and offices designed to ride herd on the bureaucracy.

Why the difference? In a word, the answer is the Constitution. That document makes the president and Congress rivals for control of the American administrative system. The rivalry leads to struggle and the struggle breeds frustration. Those agencies that Congress regards as un


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Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It


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