Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Toward Generalizing about Congressional Control over Agency Pr: The Failure of Spending Limits on Pentagon Pr, 1951-1959

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Toward Generalizing about Congressional Control over Agency Pr: The Failure of Spending Limits on Pentagon Pr, 1951-1959

Article excerpt


The meta-architecture of American public administration since the end of WWII has been legislative-centered (Rosenbloom, 2000). Congress has increasingly tried to use its constitutional, legal and funding powers to impose its will on the bureaucracy, sometimes at the expense of presidents (Roberts, 2008, 9-11). Given that public administration derives its power from public law (Rosenbloom, O'Leary & Chanin, 2010; Beckett, 2010), do American legislatures generally succeed in trumping bureaucratic self-interest (Demir, 2008)? Put slightly differently, are "bureaucracies 'faithful implementers' of the laws that Congress passes" (Shipan, 2005, 435)? Or do agencies pursue goals that belie such a faithful implementation of the law if institutional self-interest may conflict with authoritative legislative directives?

Public relations (PR) is a management activity that is vital to the survival and autonomy of a government department (Simon, Smithburg & Thompson, 1991, 415-21; Rourke, 1984, 50; Herring, 1967, 362-76). Carpenter's landmark study in American Political Development (APD) identified the centrality of PR as one of the major tools of the autonomizing imperative in public administration (Carpenter, 2001, 354-55, 363-64). If an agency seeks to conduct a robust public relations program as a way to protect its autonomy, but Congress objects, who wins? Three historical reports up to now have suggested that the bureaucracy prevails, even subverting the plain language of Congressional prohibitions and appropriations. This inquiry is a fourth such investigation that not only contributes to this literature, but also contributes to the possibility of confirming (or rebutting) the generalizations about this phenomenon.

The extant historical literature is a mix of horizontal and vertical examples of PR controls. Horizontal examinations focused on Congressional actions that were executive branch-wide and were generic limitations on specified public relations activities. They applied to all departments and agencies. These could be considered a 'wholesale' legislative action because of its broad application. Conversely, vertical control examples are of Congressional efforts to limit the public relations of a specific agency silo, a kind of 'retail' approach to imposing legislative controls.

In 2005, Kosar examined the effectiveness of several horizontal statutory limitations on agency PR. He concluded that such laws had limited effect: "Executive agencies have an interest in aggressively promoting themselves and have shown themselves willing to do so in spite of the plain language of the law" (2005, 795). In 2011, Lee examined additional horizontal Congressional efforts to control agency PR in the 20th and early 21st centuries. I also concluded that the federal bureaucracy was semi-sovereign, protecting its external communications activities notwithstanding legislative efforts to the contrary. Partly overlapping with Kosar's examples, I concluded that Congress's horizontal initiatives were more often failures than successes (2011, 225).

Similarly, that 2011 study also examined several examples of vertical one-at-a-time efforts by Congress to control PR of specific agencies. These, too, were generally ineffective, although not always (174, 225). A separate inquiry, not covered in the 2011 study, examined a specific vertical effort by Congress to use its power of the purse to control military public relations from 1967 to 1973. It failed as well (Lee, 2000).

This inquiry is a fourth historical study adding to the literature of legislative efforts to control federal agency PR. It turns out that the already-examined Congressional effort from 1967 to 1973 to control Pentagon PR spending actually occurred between two other identical vertical initiatives. The first, a major effort, occurred between 1951 and 1959, thus a decade preceding the 1967-73 effort. …

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