The Federal Executive under Clinton
JOEL D. ABERBACH
The second half of the twentieth century has been marked by a set of controversies about the nature and role of the executive branch in the United States. What should it do? How big should it be? Who should control it? How should it be staffed so that it can perform well?
Democrats built and staffed much of the contemporary administrative state during the New Deal and Great Society eras. The agencies and programs they created were identified as products of their party, providing a built-in basis, if assertive "conservative" Republicans ever came to power, for questioning not only the fundamental policies the agencies administered but the loyalty and role of their top career personnel as well. This indeed happened. The latter years of the Nixon administration and the eight years of the Reagan administration were particularly contentious, as Nixon sought to gain control of policy and administration in the face of a Democratic Congress, and Reagan, with the added advantage of a Republican Senate for six years of his presidency, sought to change the mission and shape of the executive branch.
The struggles between assertive Republican presidents and Democratic Congresses determined to thwart their influence exacerbated the normal rivalry between the branches built into our system of separate institutions, sharing powers. Congressional oversight of executive branch agencies increased noticeably in the late 1960s. It then took off in the early 1970s during a turbulent period of intense congressional conflict with the president and of internal reforms designed to increase Congress's capability to review and control the activities of the executive branch. 1