Unseen Forces Govern Your Country

Regarding two books of political science from 1955 and 1976 covering structural realities widely disregarded by those discussing politics

Chuk Moran
Apr 3, 2019 · 10 min read

Despite what the media relays of American government, most policy decisions are made without much relation to elections, party, or justice. Consider the bills actually passed by the US Congress last session.

The real acts of congress do not get much media attention. And, more importantly, most of these bills are simply commands for federal agencies to create and enforce some new rule. For example, the “FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018” extends funding for the FAA and calls for many new bureaucratic actions such as a privacy review of drones, creation and distribution of an “Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights,” clearer policies about checking strollers as luggage, and the establishment of a new “Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program”.

So the real labor of government is done at some remove from what they emote about in the news. In gross terms, agencies create about 20 rules for each law coming out of congress. (Amusingly, the link I just gave is to an anti-government group that thinks this is too much!)

Congress commits to some idea by passing a law, and then agencies have to throw together regulations to fulfill on the promise. Though I won’t cover it here, the same thing happens at the state level with the legislative body making new regulative work for state agencies, and the agencies scurrying to fulfill on it roughly on time.

From this point of view, elected officials appear as a small part of the puzzle of American government. Most of the real work happens in mandarin subsystems I know very little about. Arguably the elected people have greater leverage than the others, but they are vastly outnumbered and unable to really understand and contribute meaningfully to the work of government.

I found two books in my mom’s house describing these mandarin subsystems and she clarified that both books were written by old friends! So I read them.

J. Leiper Freeman’s book The Political Process: Executive Bureau-Legislative Committee Relations is an extension of his dissertation work on the Bureau of Indian Affairs (the BIA). His central claim is that committees are the epicenter of policy for particular groups (e.g. Indian affairs) and that there are quite obvious and distinct ways that players can relate to each other in these subsystems. The author would have been 33 years old when the book was published (1955), but only 30 when the main research was completed during a rather short PhD program (3 years). Freeman had already taught a year as a professor on a Bachelor’s degree (standards were so different then!) and is not, in this book, a wizened old sage ruminating on the vicissitudes of bureaucracy. The theoretical claims are, rather, made in order to satisfy a desire for some theory to govern the topic and for that theory to secure Freeman tenure at Vanderbilt. This was never a very important book. It is also a bit of a chore to read.

Gary L. Wamsley and Mayer N. Zald authored The Political Economy of Public Organizations: A Critique and Approach to the Student of Public Administration as an outgrowth of a journal article with the same gist published three years earlier, in 1973. Both authors focused on the sociology of politics, with Wamsley doing the beautiful work of applying Erving Goffman to budgeting processes and Zald writing prolifically on social movement organizations. This is basically an important book written twenty years after Freeman’s. It was very easy to read.

To be clear, neither book echoes my (Foucaultian) position that power is primarily capillary; both books assume real power is held on high and the subsystems are just funny details of enforcement. But Wamsley and Zald do give a very weak metaphor: the political process is often imagined as a game of chess, but maybe the pieces are moving for their own internal reasons! Anyway, I have added the slant that “centralized power is not that powerful because local proxies do the real work and are quite unlike the center.”

Context of Bureaucracies

The federal bureaucracies do the actual work of administration that politicians like to fight about but are rarely interested in actually doing. Freeman insists that parties in the American context are just organizations to help politicians get elected (16–17). Because of this, parties need to avoid controversial, overly-specific, or complicated stances of the kind that are basically inevitable in the work of administering government. Should we increase bridge tolls to finance transit infrastructure improvements? Should we set caps on incomes of dialysis centers? Should we guarantee maximum class sizes for teachers? It usually doesn’t help the party to commit to either side of these.

Where parties appear involved in specific policy issues, particular party-supported politicians tend to drag the party along by taking specific policy positions that they phrase as essential expressions of party ideology. Because the party is so closely associated with the politician, their stance is seen as (or explicitly adopted as) party creed.

But the “chief, enduring partisan concern” is not to make one specific policy or another; it is “to capture the government” (31).

The Realm of Bureaucracy

Bureaucracies are thus left with the actual administrative work of handling the many and diverse requests brought to government to make things work in whatever context. Freeman makes the rather fantastic point that,

If there is any creeping socialism in American government, it has come and is coming largely as an accompaniment of what might be called “creeping pluralism,” that is, the gradual growth of political groups especially concerned with the protection and promotion of particular interests. (5)

Wamsley and Zald add much more depth to the context of bureaucracies, rephrasing them as economic actors who offer a “well-received product to an efficacious clientele.” Their basic contribution is to use political economy to show how agencies are not simply extensions of centralized federal power, but instead act as organisms of their own, trying to secure their long term value proposition (against random political noise) and ensure their mission and work can continue into the future.

Indeed, Wamsley and Zald go so far as to ask if there really are any differences between a federal agency and a regular business! Businesses, they explain, are more sensitive to “the price system” while agencies:
• are more controlled by superiors than the price system
• depend mostly on funding rather than revenue, and this funding depends on previous experience and perceptions of supervisors
• tend to have many vague goals
• may not see much benefit from reducing costs and may be able to shift costs to other agencies
• generally lack objective tests of efficacy (5–6)

Going further, Wamsley and Zald claim that agencies tend to do one of three kinds of jobs, which more or less determine how politically tumultuous their work will be. Distributive work simply means providing benefits to specific audiences and tends to be calm. Regulatory work means punishing some and helping others (eg FDA, FCC, FTC), so it tends to be contentious until the regulator has been fully captured by those it regulates and (as a puppet) becomes a stable participant in an industry or similar. Redistributive work moves resources around from some people to others and tends therefore to be very contentious and, in response, extremely bureaucratic with more red tape than others. Treasury, Medicaid, Social Security, and the IRS are examples.

If the bureau is defending precarious values or needs a high degree of cohesion in its highest-ranking people (but struggles to get it), then grooming can help. Forestry, for example, does a lot of work to make sure its elite has very similar training and worldview. The bureau elite mostly matter for getting the work done of the bureau itself, but they may also represent the agency to other potential political allies. This concept is quite appealing to me and can also be characterized as a facet of the “deep state.” Wamsley and Zald just bring it up as part of the political economy of public administration.

Wamsley and Zald pitch a very alluring set of factors to explain varying levels of autonomy between agencies. Why are some so freewheeling and some constrained completely?

  • Having a clear mission tends to limit the agency’s autonomy. Having a zany, weird, multi-part fuzzy mission is way easier! If supervisors (e.g. congress) understands the agency’s goal, it can confidently make its own decision about how the agency should operate to meet the goal. It’s too easy for others to understand the agency (as it is thus framed) and so it is too easy for others to futz with.
  • Being totally inscrutably complicated, like California’s UC system, is great for autonomy because no one is sure what the hell you do or how you operate or what you are responding to or how it needs to go in the next ten years. This reminds me of a beautiful story about the growth in research commitment to computing at the cost of funding for social science: the congressman could figure out how to make fun of the social science but had no idea what was happening with the computer mumbo jumbo. So the agency slashed budget for social science and redirected it into computers. Thanks, hicks!
  • Providing a service that is seen as fundamental wins an agency a lot of autonomy. What is fundamental and what is not? That is a matter of perception, but given the perception that, say, Veterans Affairs must exist, then the agency can more easily set its own agenda.
  • Developing product-market fit with efficacious clientele can increase support for an agency and thus its autonomy. The US Census made a move like this when it introduced local census surveys for the benefit of those focused on specific localities.
  • Having the right supporters. There are different ways to play it, but Figure 2–2 (reproduced here!) is great fun and gets you thinking. The U.S. Tea Tasting Board is widely regarded with neutrality, but a very small number of the right people think it’s just great. The secret police of the USSR were not at all popular, but Stalin liked them and that was enough!
Then they run this amazing chart o page 31.

Gosh these guys come off as a real drain (this topic gets more attention from Freeman). The legislature has to approve funding for the agencies and, really, the agency must exist to fulfill promises made by legislative actions (bills passed into law). Furthermore, the agencies exist to do fair, balanced federal work but the members of congress exist to represent the local people federal regulations are usually designed to keep in line. So the committee and agency are both intertwined and working at cross purposes.

In practice, the committees control money and resources. Their primary stake in policy contests within the agencies is going to be to help out political patrons advance their agenda in the committee, and thus with the agency who is doing the actual administrative work. Or, in loftier terms, the elected representatives will represent the interests of their constituents and determine if the agency is really serving their needs or just wasting tax payer dollars! Or, maybe I’m supposed to say, the members of the committee will represent their locality thereby counterposing two levels of representation to reach ongoing, workable compromises between federal and local needs. These days I just assume most working professionals are corrupt and incompetent sticking with the work purely for self-serving reasons based in their own decaying mental health.

Committees can’t control agencies directly, they have to work with purse strings, the media, and other resources to get an agency to play ball. The chair of a committee has a nice role. The person selected for this job is traditionally chosen by seniority. At the same time, committee assignments within congress are typically a political reward, potentially distributed by the parties almost directly. The chair of a committee can control the subject, duration, and evidence accepted in hearings so is well-positioned to influence the administrative work done by agencies.

Naturally, committee members tend to be arrogant and treat members of the agencies as if they do not know their subject area that well. But this is just positioning so the congress member looks like the big ape and can save face when they later decide to ignore sound technocratic reasoning for obviously stupid political reasons.

The committee members value a bureau representative who

  • knows what s/he is talking about
  • plays it straight
  • cooperates

There’s a good lesson in government!

A final powerful character in a policy subsystem is the interest group leader. These leaders do not have any formal power, of course. They aren’t employed by the government. They must be well-informed, well-heard, vocal, organized, cohesive, clever, knowledgeable and persistent. (That list is in Wamsley and Zald.) Presumably the interest group they represent has a pile of money that can be contributed to whatever political causes their contacts in congress request. And, in exchange, they will say some stuff that sounds sensible and try to get things moving in the right direction. They can try to make inroads directly with the agency, but that is often much harder.

Fun story: the FDA in America (and parallel bodies in many countries) now receives most of its annual funding from the companies it regulates (pharmaceutical companies paying to have their drugs tested, for example). This lets us cut out the middle manager role of congress and let interest groups directly capture bureau-level regulations, which is a different way to do it.

Policy Subsystems Control Quotidian American Government

These books put together a great set of ideas about the role of agencies in the administrative work of government. Little is said about the onbverse: contributions of the agencies to politics; but that seems ok. We also don’t get a very empirical perspective on how important these microcosmic forces are relative to others in driving social outcomes. And these books don’t cover the states.

But that’s ok with me. They’re just two books.

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