- Historic Sites
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
Historically the federal bureaucracy before 1930 was not noted for its expertise, or, more accurately, it was (and is)—in the words of Norman John Powell, a political science professor—“one aggregate of talent” among many, and to some a lesser aggregate at that. Business, law, the universities, journalism, and civic groups have from the beginning of the nation provided trained personnel to meet the nation’s needs. Unlike underdeveloped states of modern times, which rely almost exclusively on the bureaucracy for policy making and for the requisite skills to keep the country functioning, the United States has traditionally looked to the private sector and, under the concept of free enterprise, to business in particular for its leadership and skills. The result, of course, is that the bureaucracy in this country has been unable to claim any special authority or special place in American life.
If anything, the bureaucrat has been forced into a lesser role. He is not part of an elite—identifiable by its training, its dress, or its old-school ties—as is the case in France or Great Britain, where traditionally the civil service has formed a class apart. In the United States the larger rewards of money and prestige have more commonly lain outside government than within it. From Washington’s time onward civil service has been measured by a double standard: it has been generally assumed that appointees to the top positions in the federal bureaucracy have accepted their offices—at considerable financial sacrifice—out of a sense of patriotism or because they were especially qualified; on the other hand, the professional bureaucrats are seen in the common stereotype as unable or unwilling to seek employment elsewhere.
Finally the bureaucratic image in America has from the beginning fallen victim to the nation’s central preoccupation with equality. As Andrew Jackson put it, possibly for all time, “The duties of all public officers are … so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance. …” In the nineteenth-century world in particular, where government intruded only a little, if at all, into the lives of Americans, such sentiments found ready acceptance. And they have remained with us—even now, when the nature of government has profoundly changed and the bureaucracy has assumed new and different responsibilities in place of the purely clerical, custodial duties of the past.
Since 1930, and especially in the last twenty-five years, the bureaucracy has emerged as a powerful branch of government in its own right. No longer simply managers of federal agencies and, to a degree, the passive recipients of orders from the executive branch or Congress, today’s professional bureaucrats have become initiators of policies and, in the increasingly complex world of the federal government, resident experts and specialists who provide the data and—more influentially—the policy alternatives that serve as the basis for legislative or Presidential decision making. Within the area of their expertise—for example, the Office of Management and the Budget—they have been given broad discretionary powers. In many cases—as in the quasi-judicial powers of the National Labor Relations Board or the regulatory powers of the Federal Communications Commission—they are hemmed in only by the limits of the enabling legislation and thus act, for practical purposes, independently of any outside authority. They have gained enormous leverage in dealing with Congress and in determining what policies it will enact. Compare, for example, the hat-in-hand approach of the military secretaries in the 1930’s to the influence of Defense Department analysts in 1974, whose accepted expertise is generally sufficient to secure additional moneys for the armed forces. The bureaucracy at the present time is, in short, a world away from the bureaucracy of forty or forty-five years ago, not merely in size, but in power and influence as well.
What produced those changes has little or nothing to do with the upward growth of the American population. Rather they have resulted from a reorientation of the philosophy of government brought on by the Industrial Revolution, a new technology, and America’s subsequent emergence as a power on the world scene. As the country shifted from an agrarian to an urban-industrial society (73 per cent of the population now lives in or near urban centers), as major corporations took near monopolistic control of the economy (some 150 corporations currently control in excess of 65 per cent of the nation’s wealth), and as the social and political effects of these changes produced profound dislocations in the traditional way of life Americans had known since the eighteenth century, the federal government abandoned its limited role to become an active agent in every area of society. No longer merely the custodian of law and order and the nation’s chief protector, the government took on the functions of regulating the economy, controlling the new technology—as in the F.C.C. or the Federal Aviation Authority—and facilitating change (in housing and medical care, for example, through the Department of Health, Education and Welfare).
In world politics the sharply altered power blocs after World War n placed heavy demands on the federal government. The result was a proliferation of new agencies, like the Central Intelligence Agency and the Peace Corps (now Action), and a dramatic increase in the size and responsibilities of older establishments, like the State Department, to deal with international affairs.
The immediate effects were two: a swollen federal budget and an enormously enlarged bureaucracy. Each has increased steadily since 1945, and of the two the bureaucracy has most commonly been criticized as inordinately large.