Controlling the Size of Bureaucracy

In the 1980s and 1990s, calls for controlling the federal bureaucracy became commonplace. The public saw the bureaucracy as being too large and lacking in accountability. Indeed, the number of civilian employees of the federal government declined slightly over the last 25 years. Bureaucracy can be reduced in a number of ways, although success is often limited. 

Appointment power and presidential persuasion

The president appoints the key members of the federal bureaucracy. If committed to controlling the size of government, the president will select people who are determined to streamline and increase the efficiency of the departments or agencies they lead. A president can give ongoing direction by conferring frequently with cabinet secretaries on policy matters and demonstrating a keen interest in their work. Under such influence, an agency may become more innovative and productive. 


Since the 1960s, various government agencies have been moved from one cabinet department to another, and the functions of the departments themselves have been redefined. For example, the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was split into the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education. A serious question remains, however, whether reorganization really improves governmental efficiency. Bureaucracies take on a life of their own and, once created, are difficult to dismantle. President Ronald Reagan failed in his plans to eliminate, or at least downgrade, the departments of Energy and Education, and during his term, the Veterans Administration was added to the cabinet. On the other hand, President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program expanded the responsibilities of the Department of Education. 

Privatization and deregulation

Some critics of the size of government argue that certain responsibilities should be turned over to private enterprise, which can carry out programs with less cost and more efficiency. The example frequently cited compares Federal Express to the U.S. Postal Service. Privatization has been most successful when undertaken by local government. 

Deregulation means that the federal government reduces its role and allows an industry greater freedom in how it operates. A reduction in the federal government's responsibility certainly affects the size of the bureaucracy. However, the consequences of deregulation may outweigh the benefits, as seen in the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s following deregulation of the savings industry. 

The power of the budget

Since 1970, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has been charged with preparing the administration's budget. A president can use the OMB to shape agencies and their programs by reducing or enlarging their proposed appropriations. Under Ronald Reagan, major federal regulations were sent to the OMB for review. Congress's "power of the purse" gives it important oversight authority over the federal bureaucracy. Through the appropriations process, Congress can eliminate a program completely by denying it funds, use the threat of funding cutbacks to control it, or pass new laws that limit the scope of an agency's responsibilities. 

Sunset laws

Many states have adopted sunset laws requiring periodic cost-effectiveness and efficiency reviews of programs and the agencies that implement them. Those that fail to meet the standards are abolished or reorganized. It takes considerable political will to pass such laws, and that hasn't happened at the federal level. 

Executive branch reviews of the federal bureaucracy

Both Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton attempted to come to grips with the federal bureaucracy through close review of its operation. Under Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle headed the Council on Competitiveness to examine all federal regulations. Vice President Al Gore's report on the six-month national performance review requested by President Clinton (titled From Red Tape to Results: Creating a Government That Works Better and Costs Less) called for downsizing some agencies, reorganizing others, and simplifying procedures. Often such proposals run into opposition from the bureaucrats themselves and from the members of Congress who would have to accomplish the proposals' aims. An entrenched bureaucracy has little incentive to decrease its size despite the fact that the public may want reform, and politicians find reducing the size of the federal government an easy campaign issue. Whether the bureaucracy can be moved in the direction the people or president wants depends to a large degree on its willingness to be moved.