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Pederal Bureaucracy

July 2024
13min read

Once counted in mere thousands, the men and women who staff the civilian agencies of the federal bureaucracy now number in the millions. Their total in 1974 is roughly equal to the population of Iowa and is greater than the population of any one of twenty-four other states or the District of Columbia. Almost 2.8 million strong, they often provide the only contact most of us have with federal power. We think them worthy of examination and offer here a brief look at the bureaucratic record in American life.

There are two striking facts about the American bureaucracy in 1974. The first is its vast size at all levels of government; the other is the seemingly low esteem in which it is held. Both provide considerable political mileage to a host of critics who variously contend that if the bureaucracy were to melt away overnight, we would all be the better for it. President Nixon, for example, has in the past consistently opposed gasoline rationing and new programs for health care and school financing on the ground that each would create “a bureaucratic nightmare.”

Yet even the briefest glance at the 1973 edition of that numerical wonderland The Statistical Abstract of the United States , prepared by the Bureau of the Census, seems to confirm that the nightmare is already here:

• At the present time 13,604,000 men and women, not counting military personnel, are government employees at the federal, state, and local levels. That is, in a work force of 88 million one of every 6.5 employees is on a government payroll. This compares with one in twenty-four in 1900, one in eighteen in 1930, and one in ten in 1950.

• State and local employment has more than doubled since 1950. The total then was 4.3 million employees; the last available total (fiscal 1972) is 10.8 million, more than 7 million of whom are in education—2.7 million as teachers, 4.3 million in administrative, auxiliary, and custodial services.

Seen from the perspective of the federal government alone, the statistics are no less dramatic and amply demonstrate the extraordinary expansion of federal services, especially in the last forty-five years.

• Roughly 78 per cent of all federal civilian jobs now in existence have been added since 1930. Approximately 30 per cent have been added since 1950.

• When George Washington took office in 1789, the nation’s population was estimated at 3.5 million; the bureaucracy numbered a mere 340. By 1974 the population had multiplied sixty times; the bureaucracy, 8,170 times.

• Between 1930 and 1950 the population increased by 23 per cent; the bureaucracy increased by 326 per cent.

• Between 1930 and 1974 the population grew by 71 per cent; the bureaucracy, by 462 per cent.

• At the present time there are 2,777,586 employees on the federal civilian payroll, or roughly one employee for every 77 persons in the population. This compares to one for every 375 in 1900 and one for 204 in 1930.

• Surprisingly, the ratio of federal employees to population in 1974 is about the same as in 1950, because the bureaucratic growth of 41 per cent was matched by a population increase of 39 per cent.

• The federal budget for the first two years of government, beginning in 1789, was $4.3 million, at a per capita cost of only $1.22. By 1930, when the budget reached $3.5 billion, the per capita cost was $28. In 1950 budget expenditures totalled $39 billion, at a per capita cost of $260.

• The proposed budget for fiscal 1975 is $304 billion, a figure roughly 8,950 times greater than the two-year budget for 1789-91. The per capita cost is approximately $1,500.

What these figures represent, of course, is merely the tip of the statistical iceberg; and what they mean is open to considerable political argument. But this much is beyond dispute: the federal bureaucracy now forms a fourth branch of government that is potentially as powerful as the Presidency, the Congress, or the courts. It is large, it is expensive, and it is not likely to fade away soon. Unquestionably it has altered the nature of government in America.

But how and to what extent remains elusive because the bureaucracy is perhaps the least understood element in our political system. Despite its bulk it is largely invisible, ignored by historians and journalists alike. Its activities go unreported, and what passes for public information about it is often little more than a random mix of rumor, myth, and half-truths. As a result the bureaucracy is still identified in stereotyped terms as a monolithic, rigid institution staffed by arrogant, incompetent timeservers who are worthy only of derision and contempt. Thus Alabama Governor George Wallace’s blunt reference to “pointyheaded bureaucrats.” Or as The American Heritage Dictionary notes, “In American usage, bureaucrat is almost invariably derogatory unless the context establishes otherwise.”

But there is another measure, as seen in Alexander Hamilton’s judgment that the true test of good government is necessarily the administrative system it produces. By that standard the present-day bureaucracy comes off quite well. Over the last hundred years it has maintained a generally high level of performance; it has yet, for example, to create a crisis of confidence in this century on the order of Teapot Dome or Watergate, both of which were the work of executive appointees and not of career civil servants. Certainly it has kept the government functioning during the latter scandal while the President and Congress seemed to give way to drift and indecision over the matter of impeachment and the energy crisis. As for the inevitable administrative foul-ups—which are clearly part of the record—the bureaucracy of big government, on balance, has performed no better and no worse than the bureaucracy of big business, as anyone who has attempted to correct a billing error or secure a warranty claim from a major corporation can attest.

Why then is it always open season on the bureaucrat? Why in an age of complex administrative systems is the governmental employee singled out for derogation? Two reasons, at least, supply the explanation. One is the historic role of the bureaucracy; the other is the peculiarly American perception of what government service actually entails.

The bureaucracy as a distinct unit of government probably dates from the time of Hammurabi, the king of ancient Babylonia (about 1700 B.C.). Since then the form has undergone profound change, notably in the degree of its complexity and specialization; but throughout its long history there has been one constant: bureaucracy outside the United States has always been identified with the interests of the ruling power rather than with the people at large. As a consequence bureaucrats have generally been viewed with suspicion and fear because of the authority they possessed as the visible agents—especially in modern times—of the state.

Added to the basic distrust of concentrated power, which in the European experience often meant oppression, was a contempt for the selection system whereby government workers were chosen for their jobs. Until fairly recent times (the first civil-service reforms were introduced in England after 1840) talent and expertise were the least significant factors involved. Loyalty to the king or the ruling party, nepotism, favoritism, and intrigue underlay most appointments, many of which, at the upper levels of government at least, were mere sinecures offering good salaries—in effect, public pensions—for little or no work. As late as a hundred years ago, for example, the English bureaucracy, which is now a model administrative system, was known, in the words of John Bright, a leading reformer, as “the outdoor relief department of the British aristocracy.” Elsewhere the civil service as a whole was seen as a necessary evil, staffed by petty individuals who were given to subservience before those they took to be their betters and to arrogance in their dealings with the public. Their primary concerns were selfprotection and their own convenience at the expense of the services they were appointed to provide.

In America much the same evaluation has persisted to our own time but for reasons uniquely our own. Until 1930 government played only a peripheral role in the lives of most Americans. Its principal function was to provide for the national defense and to secure the orderly growth of the nation by maintaining a sound currency and effective trade relations with foreign states. It offered virtually no social legislation, and its regulatory functions, if they existed at all, were both hesitant and minuscule. The role of the bureaucracy was as a consequence essentially clerical and custodial, and staff size in every department was small, the Postal Service presenting the one exception. In 1861, when the federal civilian bureaucracy totalled 36,672 workers, or roughly one employee for every 857 persons in the population, 30,000 serviced the mails. In 1930, on the eve of the New Deal, one of every two federal employees was in the postal department.

During the first hundred and forty years under the Constitution, then, no sizable bureaucracy appeared. But it was not simply the role of government as a limited agent that precluded the emergence of a governing class like the modern civil services in England or France. The essential stability of the American political order robbed the federal bureaucracy of at least one function that is central to some of its European counterparts—that of defending the state against the threatened depredations of shifting regimes. Where in certain European states, notably France, a shift in the ruling political party has often meant a fundamental change in national ideology, the transfer of power in the United States has produced no extraordinary upheavals. Few radical innovations result from a change in administration, and the basic ideology of the nation remains the same. Institutions are largely unchanged, and the bulk of the bureaucracy, the civil service corps, is hardly aware that a new party and a new President govern.

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.

The surprising fact is that the American bureaucracy, despite the many demands placed upon it, is not the world’s largest, nor is its rate of increase markedly different from the growth of civil services in other industrialized countries in the postwar world. Its total currently accounts for 1.3 per cent of the American population, a ratio exactly equal to Great Britain’s civil service in relation to its population. Indeed, that part of the British bureaucracy comparable to our own has doubled in size since 1930, and total government employment, including nationalized industries, has quadrupled.

Although it is difficult to draw comparisons with governments other than England’s, the American bureaucracy, proportionate to population, is among the world’s smaller government services. France’s, for example, is estimated to comprise 2.5 per cent of its people; in Scandinavia the totals average about 2 per cent.

Equally surprising is the fact that the federal bureaucracy has declined in size in the last five years, with the deepest cuts coming in 1972 and 1973. The overall total is down roughly 10 per cent over 1969 because of the elimination of about 269,000 civilian jobs in the Defense Department at the conclusion of the war in Vietnam and of some 60,000 jobs in the reorganized Postal Service.

The 2.7 million employees who remain are spread through the Executive Office of the President, eleven executive departments of the Cabinet, forty-five independent agencies, Congress, and the courts. At the present time, as in every year since 1945, one department and two agencies account for about 70 per cent of all federal employment: Defense (1,072,522 civilians), the Postal Service (665,224), and the Veterans’ Administration (192,021). Three departments absorb 12 per cent among them: HEW (117,425), Treasury (111,057), and Agriculture (107,990). The legislative branch employs 32,782, slightly more than one per cent of the total. The smallest of the regular agencies is the National Mediation Board, with a total staff of 112.

Only 10 per cent of the federal bureaucracy resides in Washington (another constant since 1945). Some 5 per cent live overseas on foreign service or in the territories and possessions. More than 20 per cent of all federal employees (570,000) are blue-collar workers, nearly three fourths of whom are in the Defense Department as skilled craftsmen, machine operators, manual laborers, custodial personnel, and the like. Slightly more than 30 per cent of all employees are women, the bulk of them in clerical positions. Approximately 14 per cent (387,000) are black, and 5 per cent more (as of 1972) are drawn from other minorities. The average age of male employees is forty-three, although 30 per cent (219,000) are over the age of fifty. The average age of females is just under forty, but nearly 32 per cent (266,000) are under thirty, and less than 2 per cent are over fifty. Nearly one quarter of the total work force has less than five years’ experience, although this includes nearly 39 per cent of all females. The average length of service for males is fifteen years; for females, just under ten years. Only 5 per cent of the whole (151,000) has more than thirty years’ service.

Despite the myth that bureaucrats enter government service and never leave, since 1945 the annual withdrawal has ranged from one sixth to one quarter of the total payroll. Since 1960 an average of 10 per cent have resigned each year. In 1972, the last year for which statistics are available, 484,168 employees, or 18 per cent of the whole, left federal employment. Some 194,000, or 7 per cent of the total force, resigned. Twenty-seven thousand were discharged for cause (inefficiency, misconduct, or delinquency), and 262,576, roughly 10 per cent of the whole, withdrew for a variety of reasons, including retirement, the termination of their appointments, and death.

In 1973 payroll expenses for the federal bureaucracy amounted to $33 billion in salaries plus $4.7 billion in fringe benefits, an increase of 53.3 per cent over 1968. The average annual federal wage is now $11,749, compared to $8,482 five years ago. The minimum wage on the General Services wage scale is $5,017; the maximum wage at GS grade 15 is $31,519. Some five thousand employees who qualify for the so-called supergrades (GS 16–18) earn $36,000 yearly, a sum set in 1969.

During the ten-year period 1962–72, according to The Tax Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit research organization, governmental salaries rose by an average of 88 per cent, compared with a 66 per cent rise in private industry and a rise of 38 per cent in the consumer price index. At the present time, according to the foundation, 23 per cent of the civilian bureaucracy earn less than $8,000 a year, and 12 per cent earn $20,000 or more.

The salary increases are a result of legislation passed more than a decade ago to bring federal salaries into line with private business in the hope of attracting able personnel to public service. It is The Tax Foundation’s contention that parity has been reached and now surpassed, indicating that Congress should once again review the situation.

Perhaps that is the most enduring criticism of the bureaucracy over the last forty-five years, not simply on the matter of pay schedules, but on the size and function of federal agencies as well. Although there have been six major reviews of government service in the recent past (the two most famous are the Hoover Commission Reports of 1949 and 1955), the elimination of moribund agencies and a clear appraisal of governmental priorities are at best haphazard. To be sure, more than 380 commissions, agencies, and committees have been abolished since 1933 (the bulk of them wartime units like the Office of Price Administration or New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps), and 324 others have been merged, reorganized, or consolidated—for example, the Defense Department in 1947 and the Executive Office of the President in 1971. But generally speaking there is no provision for a systematic evaluation of the total system, and changes are made piecemeal. Perhaps the weakest element in the Civil Service System, which embraces all but about 15 per cent of the total work force outside the postal system, is its work-review program.

Another weakness lies outside the government. For most of our history the civil service has been ignored by the press, and lately by television, which is the major news source for a majority of Americans. Given the size and power of the present-day bureaucracy, the situation borders on the scandalous. The fourth branch of government should be scrutinized as closely as the Presidency, Congress, or the courts. It is perhaps one measure of its quality that it has functioned well despite our ignorance. But it is equally clear that its power to affect our lives is great; it deserves to be challenged, criticized, and understood.

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